Lawsuit, civil rights conviction surface as Lexington mayoral race nears vote

Mayor of Lexington Steve MacDougall.
Mayor of Lexington Steve MacDougall. kkfoster@thestate.com

One candidate for Lexington mayor is a former volunteer police officer who pleaded guilty in the early 1990s to violating the civil rights of a suspect.

The other candidate has been accused in a lawsuit of not paying nearly $50,000 in business bills.

The two cases loom over the race for mayor in the quickly growing Town of Lexington.

Ron Williams, a town councilman since 2014, has a federal violation of civil rights conviction from when he was a reserve police officer for West Columbia. Sitting Mayor Steve MacDougall has been sued for allegedly owing nearly $50,000 for food products delivered to a Lexington restaurant he managed, Mr. D’s Steaks and Seafood.

When Williams was a volunteer officer in his mid-20s, he was involved in an incident with a man who allegedly resisted arrest. Williams, along with other officers, responded to a call for backup by an officer with the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department. The officers struggled to handcuff the suspect, a black man, according to Williams’ recounting. Because he did not have a nightstick, Williams, who is white, used his arm to “weaken” Jones and get him in the police car.

It was November 1991, the same year as the Rodney King police beating in Los Angeles.

SLED investigated the incident, and Williams was charged with assault of a high and aggravated nature. A Lexington County grand jury decided not to indict Williams. But a few days later, he was indicted on a federal charge for violation of civil rights.

He pleaded guilty and served five months at a federal halfway house, five months on house arrest and two years of probation, in addition to 200 community service hours.

When he initially ran for council in 2014, Williams said he verified his eligibility with Lexington County elections director Dean Crepes, though Williams did not speak about his record publicly then. Around that time, he found out MacDougall was asking questions about his past, Williams said, so he met with MacDougall to answer his questions.

It was this summer, when Williams discussed with his wife Catherine the idea of running for mayor, that he decided to share his past in a more visible way, he said.

“We decided that we wanted more transparency in our town government and felt it was only right to be transparent about myself,” he said.

Coming clean and playing dirty

On July 26, about 45 days after he announced his intent to run for mayor and the same day he filed by petition to run, Williams posted about his record on his Facebook page.

“At the time of this incident, 26 years ago, I acknowledged my actions, took responsibility for them and paid the price required by law and moved forward with my life,” he wrote in the post. “Since then, I have continued to try and help others, not out of guilt or a sense of obligation, but because it is my nature.”

Williams has no other convictions, according to public records. The man Williams used excessive force on could not be reached for comment.

MacDougall said voters should decide if his opponent’s criminal record is an issue or not.

“As a resident and voter in the Town of Lexington, I would have preferred to have this information prior to his initial run for council,” MacDougall wrote this week in an email.

The 1991 incident was the subject of a Facebook post last month on a Lexington community page with 18,400 members. The post included an article published in The State in 1992 with the headline, “Ex-reserve cop gets jail for beating West Columbia man caught on videotape.” The post was later deleted.

The item was posted by a Facebook profile under the name of Crystal Redford. Redford’s account has little personal information, except that it was created in September and joined a Lexington community page on Oct. 15, just two days before posting The State article in the community group. The post was deleted after the legitimacy of Redford’s account was questioned, as reported by watchdog blog Lake & Main.

Redford’s profile says she is a Ph. D. student at the University of Houston and is a world history professor. The University of Houston said it did not have anyone matching that name in its system.

“We have no student records, past or present, of a Crystal Redford ever attending UH,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email.

Among the pages that Redford’s account follows are a slew of World War II pages, as well as several white supremacist groups. The account also follows Ron Williams for MAYOR, Lindsey Graham and Lexington County Citizens Watch, a dormant page created to antagonize councilman Todd Carnes when he ran for State House this summer.

Redford’s list of friends is a smorgasbord of 111 nondescript profiles from around the world, including several that appear to sell gear with Nazi iconography and other hate symbols. All are markers of a fake social media profile, the likes of which have routinely been used in recent years to sow division online, especially during elections.

Williams said he does not know who made the page, but he can infer the purpose of it.

“Because the post clearly was an attempt to paint me in a negative light, I could make an educated guess that the person that created that account has some reason or interest in hoping my competitor wins this upcoming election,” Williams wrote in an email.

MacDougall said he has “no idea” about Redford, that he does not know her and has not communicated with her.

Redford had not responded to messages from The State at the time of publication.

One restaurant, two stories

The lawsuit against MacDougall is newer. It centers on a dispute between MacDougall and Steve Deese, the owner of Mr. D’s steakhouse, which has closed.

In July 2017, US Foods sued Mr. D’s and Deese over a $48,856 debt. However, Deese had arranged to sell the restaurant to MacDougall, who was the general manager, in August 2016.

Deese was undergoing cancer treatments and could not keep running Mr. D’s, he said, so he offered to make a deal with MacDougall, who he considered an “honest man.” Deese said he allowed MacDougall to run the place while they waited for a bank to follow through with a loan to MacDougall to close the deal.

MacDougall and Deese agree that they had a deal for MacDougall to buy the restaurant. They also agree that financing for the sale fell through. But they sharply disagree about why the money never came and why the restaurant closed.

“He ran the business down so bad that banks backed out of their commitment to give him the loan to pay for it,” Deese said.

MacDougall said the situation was something else entirely: In order to loan the money, he said, the bank needed 12 months of financial information. However, following a slowdown, Deese closed Mr. D’s after nine months.

According to the lawsuit, Mr. D’s owed nearly $50,000 to the food supplier.

Deese said MacDougall also owed rent and sold gift certificates to customers while knowing the restaurant wouldn’t be open much longer. MacDougall said he sold gift cards, but Deese was the one who closed the restaurant, not him.

In January 2017, Deese, as landlord of the property, closed the restaurant, he said. Because of the financial state of the business, Deese said he had to pay the employees out of pocket — about $3,500.

MacDougall said that recounting was inaccurate.

“At the time of the closing, there was sufficient monies in the restaurant account to repay all sold cards and employees,” MacDougall wrote in an email.

MacDougall maintains he was the general manager of Mr. D’s, not the owner, so the debt is not on his hands. His lawyer, John Carrigg, called the case “without merit” and said MacDougall will not pay.

A September 2016 advertisement in Lexington Life magazine (published by council candidate Todd Shevchik) announced the change of owner.

“As the proud new owner of Mr. D’s, we want to invite you and your family out to Mr. D’s,” the advertisement reads., a smiling MacDougall next to it.

An article in The State around the same time said MacDougall would be the new owner of Mr. D’s. He now says both were premature announcements.

“We were in negotiations at the time of that article and felt like we had a solid closing date but because of financing constraints, we needed three more months before we could close. That’s when the owner decided to close the doors and the contract was terminated,” MacDougall wrote in an email.

US Foods also has records of two separate accounts — one for Deese and one for MacDougall — and MacDougall has the debt. Carrigg, MacDougall’s lawyer, said his client’s account was created in preparation for him taking over as the owner, and U.S. Foods charged products to his account accidentally.

Deese is suing MacDougall for the $48,000 debt and for nearly $20,000 in legal fees that Deese says he’s accrued because of the suit.

The dispute between U.S. Foods and Deese has been resolved, according to Deese’s attorney, though not dismissed. The suit between Deese and MacDougall is ongoing and a deposition of MacDougall is pending.

Williams said he had heard rumors about a lawsuit against MacDougall but did not know specifics until Deese called him on Oct. 8, “hoping to uncover facts that may help him obtain restitution in his current lawsuit.” He did not offer specifics about what facts Deese was seeking.

Williams said he won’t make a judgment on the matter until the lawsuit is settled. He said “voters should decide for themselves” if the lawsuit and the dispute between MacDougall and Deese are of consequence in the election.

Cueto can be reached at 803-771-8621, @isabellacueto