Richland election officials OK legal bills they can’t pay

Voters wait in line outside the Richland County election office to cast absentee ballots the Monday before the Nov. 8 election.
Voters wait in line outside the Richland County election office to cast absentee ballots the Monday before the Nov. 8 election. tglantz@thestate.com

Richland County election officials continue to run up legal bills that they don’t have the money to pay – so far at least $41,000 – even after County Council told them it no longer would pay fees for attorneys who defend them in lawsuits.

An irritated council picked up a nearly $39,000 legal tab last year in connection with a 2014 suit by the Greenville-based S.C. Public Interest Foundation. That bill, amassed by the Elections & Voter Registration Board, grew to that amount because of a contempt threat issued by a judge because the elections office resisted paying the bill.

But there remain unpaid bills for at least four other suits that so far have racked up at minimum $41,256 in attorneys’ fees, according to records obtained by The State newspaper and a partial accounting provided by the director of elections.

Separately, the board and director Samuel Selph, whose contract has been extended by the board until April 21, are looking to hire lawyers to defend a fifth suit filed by a former board member.

Selph, who is paid $79,800, declined to say how much in legal fees he has accumulated from attorney William Spillane. Selph hired Spillane to defend him separately from the board in two suits.

“I’m ashamed that I’ve paid the amount of money I’ve paid to have to defend myself in the public position I have,” Selph said earlier this month.

Selph said he wants Spillane’s advice on whether to disclose his legal bills. Yet Selph said he can’t afford the expense and plans to submit those bills for reimbursement with public money.

The retainer agreement Selph has with Spillane also was not signed by then-board Chairwoman Marjorie Johnson.

And it’s unclear who hired Spillane and attorney Regina Lewis to work on the board’s behalf.

Neither the board nor Selph has produced documentation that Spillane or Lewis were properly hired by a vote of the board when the lawyers initially were retained. The newspaper’s review of minutes dating to late 2014 found no such vote and two of the four current board members said they cannot recall a vote.

However, on March 1 of this year, the board voted in public to retain Spillane and Lewis and pay them for work already performed and continued representation by Lewis.

Board Chairwoman Adell Adams first noted at the time that the agency did not have the money to pay them. She and the board are in agreement that they believe county government is responsible for legal bills for the often-sued board.

In publicly hiring Spillane and Lewis, the commission rejected commissioner Jane Dreher Emerson’s suggestion that the agreement should have a cap on how much they can be paid, she said after the vote.

The board’s decision likely will reignite the debate over whether County Council will pay the board’s legal expenses even though council neither appoints board members – state lawmakers do – nor controls the board, but must fund its activities with taxpayer money.

Councilman Greg Pearce said Friday that he did not know about additional legal bills until a reporter contacted him.

“We made it very clear ... that it is not our responsibility to provide legal assistance to the elections office,” a frustrated Pearce said. “They have a budget. They’re supposed to live within their budget.

“At some point in time, if they don’t have the money, I guess we’ll have to pay.”

Pearce was referring to finance laws that bar governments from ending fiscal years with deficits.

In September, an upset County Council agreed to pay attorney Jim Carpenter’s tab in the 2014 S.C. Public Interest Foundation lawsuit, saying it was a one-time payment. The Greenville-based nonprofit government watchdog group said the election commission failed to respond in a timely manner and furnish records requested under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. A judge agreed.

County Administrator Gerald Seals told council the payment to Carpenter violated county policies and the law. He also criticized the election commission for a lack of “fiscal discipline.”

As for the other lawsuits, the newspaper twice has asked the board and Selph to produce minutes to show a vote to hire Spillane and Lewis. Nothing has been provided. The newspaper’s review of minutes that date back two years show only conversations about retaining lawyers or then-chairwoman Johnson’s assertion that a vote had been taken.

Chairwoman Adams said there was a vote, then said that Johnson, her predecessor, had said a vote was taken. Two board members, Emerson and Peter Kennedy, say they can’t recall a formal vote.

That means the commission has not properly hired Spillane and Lewis, said Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, who chairs the county’s legislative delegation. Further, Smith said, retainer agreements he has seen with Spillane were not signed by Johnson.

“I’ve been down there trying to right the ship,” the legislator said. “It’s like turning a battleship, but it’s turning in the right direction.”

Selph insists a vote was taken. He recalls, vaguely, that Johnson might have taken a telephone poll of the members in the spring of 2016.

“It may not be in the minutes. But I was there,” Selph said. “That body voted.”

Meanwhile, while running up legal bills, election officials separately left at least $10,700 on the table for election expenses in the District 10 race, according to state election records.

The county elections office failed to request from the State Election Commission to be reimbursed for the cost of poll workers, voting machine technicians and ballots during primary races for the seat that encompasses most of Lower Richland.

State law allows for counties to seek refunds for the cost of primaries, said Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the state elections agency. “They did not do that,” he said of Richland County.

Election board legal bills

The Richland County Elections & Voter Registration Board is facing mounting legal bills to defend its appointed members and the director the board hired from lawsuits filed against them. Here is a breakdown of the bills in pending cases.

The board

Howard Jackson, fired elections director; $19,499 bill from Columbia attorney Regina Lewis

Eric Campbell, ex-deputy elections director; $13,690 bill from Lewis

Elections director and the board

Thurmond Guess Sr., Cameo Green and Barry Green, residents whose suit alleged the county violated election laws in the Democratic primary for the District 10 seat on County Council; $3,704 bill from attorney William Spillane

A suit intended to keep Kim Murphy off the November 2016 for a Richland County seat on the Lexington-Richland 5 school board; $4,363 bill from Spillane

Spillane also represented Samuel Selph in his capacity as elections director and during his tenure as a member of the board in the Jackson, Campbell, Guess and Murphy suits. Selph has not released how much those bills are but said he plans to seek reimbursement for the legal fees he has paid out of pocket.

Pending lawsuit and the bills

The bulk of the unpaid legal fees were submitted by attorney Regina Lewis for representing the board in suits by former elections director Howard Jackson and Eric Campbell, who Jackson offered a job as deputy director in February 2014.

Lewis has asked for $33,189 and has been paid about $1,500, elections director Samuel Selph said. But Selph would not release a copy of her bills. Lewis told the newspaper she cannot discuss any aspect of her representation, including her fees, without the board’s approval.

Jackson’s suit accuses the county and Selph, then a member of the elections board, of interfering in Jackson’s selection of Campbell. Campbell said in the suit that he had left his job as director of elections and voter registration in Colleton County to accept the $68,000 post as deputy director in Richland County.

Jackson alleges Selph and then-board members told him to get rid of Campbell because Campbell is African-American or he, Jackson, would be fired, according to the suit.

“Selph stated that the election commission ‘did not need any more blacks,’ and suggested that Jackson ‘hire another white employee’ for the deputy director position,” the suit, filed Sept. 21, 2015, states.

Campbell’s suit, filed Jan. 19, 2016, makes the same claims as Jackson. But the Campbell suit also states that the board in a closed-door session fired Jackson for refusing to replace Campbell. Then the board named Selph as interim director, Campbell said. Selph eventually became the full-time director.

Two other suits

Attorney William Spillane has billed $8,067 for his representation of the board in two other suits.

In another lawsuit filed last summer, the board was embroiled in a legal fight over whether a candidate for a seat on the Lexington-Richland 5 school board was eligible to be on the ballot. Kim Murphy maintained she was resident of Richland County. A judge disagreed.

Spillane said he’s owed $4,363 in that case and another $3,704 in a election dispute over the District 10 seat on Richland County Council. Spillane did not respond to an email and a phone message left by a reporter.

In February, three people sued the elections board, Selph and the State Election Commission. They contend election law violations in the campaigns to replace Kelvin Washington on council. He had been removed from office for failure to file state income taxes for three years.

That suit was thrown out of court in January.

A suit by a former board member

The board and Selph have said they are looking for a lawyer to represent them in a Jan. 17 suit by former board member Herbert Sims.

Sims’ suit alleges that Selph, then chairman of the board, did not tell fellow members that the suit file by S.C. Public Interest Foundation named each member individually. That means each member was personally liable for attorney’s fees that then-amounted to $34,940.

“Defendant Selph fraudulently concealed the fact that ... Herbert Sims and the other individual board members were being sued individually and that judgment was entered against them,” the suit states. Selph withheld that information despite being questioned under oath and being in contact with his lawyer, Sims contends in the suit.

Sims said the debt and the stress hurt him financially and personally.

It took two court orders, a judge’s contempt decree and a threat to seize commissioners’ personal property before Greenville attorney Jim Carpenter collected his $38,740 fee in the Public Interest Foundation suit.

Clif LeBlanc

Unclaimed money

While running up legal bills, election officials separately left at least $10,700 on the table for election expenses in the District 10 race, according to state election records.

The county election office failed to request from the State Election Commission a reimbursement for the cost of paying poll workers, voting machine technicians and printing ballots during a May 31 special primary for the seat that encompasses most of Lower Richland.

State law allows for counties to seek refunds for the cost of primaries, said Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the state elections agency. “They did not do that,” he said of Richland County.

The county had primaries on June 14 and a runoff on June 28 in council District 10 and House District 79. Election officials did request and receive reimbursements for those primaries, Whitmire said.

Based on data the county provided the state commission, Whitmire estimates that Richland County was eligible for at least $10,762 in reimbursements for the May 31 primary. County election officials could have requested the refund for up to 30 days after the last primary, he said.

With that deadline expired, the county still could seek about $9,700 from the state, Whitmire said.

Clif LeBlanc

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