Texts: Richland County Councilwoman discussed $1M payout with fired admin before vote

A Richland County Council member’s text messages with former county administrator Gerald Seals should invalidate the county’s nearly $1 million payment to Seals after he was fired, lawyers argue in a new court filing.

Lawyers for a Richland County resident suing to recoup the million-dollar payment say a series of text messages sent between Councilwoman Dalhi Myers and Seals show Myers advising Seals on his position in negotiating with the county, according to a partially redacted text exchange provided by Seals to the law firm of McCulloch and Schillaci.

The time stamps on some of the texts overlap with when the council was behind closed doors discussing the settlement, according to the the court filings.

Attorney Joe McCulloch is asking the court to compel Seals to provide the full text exchange between the two.

“Myers’ advocacy for Seals is arguably both a violation of Richland County’s Code of Ethics and a clear conflict of interest that she never disclosed even as she voted to approve the payment,” the filing from McCulloch said.

The saga began on April 3, 2018, when six of the 11 council members surprised their colleagues and voted to fire Seals. Myers was among the five council members who voted against Seals’ firing.

Seals immediately challenged the firing, saying council members had not followed state law, and he threatened to sue. A week later, the majority voted on April 9 to suspend Seals with the intention of firing him.

On May 2, during Seals’ suspension but before the settlement was reached, Myers texted Seals and advised him: “Don’t counter small or reasonable. Go big,” and “Make sure that you give descriptive info. So this ASAP while you’re an employee, before anything changes.”

Reached by The State, Myers said the message was “out of context.” At the time, she believed Seals would be brought back to work.

On May 14, the council, including Myers, met behind closed doors to talk about Seals.

The meeting went into a closed executive session at 2:35 p.m., meeting minutes show. At 3:36 p.m., Myers texted Seals “DO NOT REVEAL YOU KNOW THIS... choose how much you’d take if you got your job back and IF you are willing to move slightly off 1.4,” according to the court filings.

The number 1.4 appears to be a reference to the amount Seals was seeking.

“I encouraged him to accept a much smaller settlement than he was demanding and, if possible, return to work,” Myers said in a statement on Monday. She did not recall the amount he was seeking.

The council came out of executive session at 3:38 p.m. on May 14 and went back into executive session at 4 p.m. At 4:10 p.m., Myers texted Seals a number, “$985,000.”

“You recommend?” Seals texted back.

After the council came out of executive session at 4:13 p.m., Myers texted back: “Yes. If you agree. Or counter with a million.”

Myers later moved in open session to have the council accept the proposed settlement, which was approved 5-4. The settlement included a cash payment of $800,000 plus one year’s salary of $184,000, for a total payout of $984,000.

McCullough contends in the filings Myers’ vote was invalid because of her coordination with Seals.

Myers told The State there was nothing wrong with her advocacy for Seals during the legal wrangling, as she was among those on council who publicly opposed Seals’ firing in the first place.

“Gerald Seals was wrongfully terminated, and I was standing up for him,” Myers said.

The settlement was justified because Myers, an attorney, felt Seals would have “gotten significantly more than his negotiated settlement in a court of law,” if the case went to court, because “he had “credible and persuasive allegations of racial discrimination, hostile work environment, and other federal claims,” she said. She told The State the payout “should have been higher.”

Myers denied that she had texted Seals during the closed door meeting, arguing the meeting “broke three or four times during executive session.”

Seals claimed his firing was in retaliation for ethical concerns he raised about council members, including what Seals contends was an illegal land purchase pursued by former Councilman Norman Jackson. Council later requested a state investigation into the allegation.

Seals declined to comment on the filing Monday, but confirmed he had provided the redacted text exchanges to McCulloch’s firm.

Monday’s filing would require Seals to turn over the complete exchange, arguing Seals has no legal basis to claim the unreleased messages as privileged.

Seals was fired at the end of a five-hour council meeting in April 2018. The county later cited insubordination, high staff turnover and sleeping on the job as reasons for his termination.

In June 2018, Richland County was sued by resident William Coggins to block the payment, claiming council members had a conflict of interest in making the payment in order to avoid being sued individually, and to find out what legal threats Seals may have made against council members.

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Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.