Council confusion: Richland County struggles to pass million dollar settlement for Gerald Seals
How much trouble can a Richland County councilwoman be in for texting a former Richland County administrator about the county’s efforts to fire him? Maybe not much.
Councilwoman Dalhi Myers has been criticized for a text exchange with fired administrator Gerald Seals about his negotiating stance with the county as the county council considered an eventual $1 million payout to avoid a potential lawsuit from Seals.
But it’s not clear what sanctions Myers may ultimately face because of the incident, if any.
John Crangle, government relations director for the S.C. Progressive Network and a longtime S.C. government watchdog, said he was planning to submit a complaint to the Commission on Lawyer Conduct in response to Myers’ text exchange with Seals. Depending on how S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson responds to a separate request to investigate corruption accusations against Richland County, Crangle may also seek an investigation from state law enforcement or the 5th Circuit solicitor’s office.
“County council has been problematic for quite a while now,” Crangle said.
The Commission on Lawyer Conduct regulates attorneys’ professional conduct in South Carolina, and can sanction members for misbehavior.
It handles approximately 1,400 complaints a year against both lawyers and judges, a spokeswoman for the S.C. judicial branch said.
Any complaint is confidential until formal charges are filed. Any charge, response and other documents would become public 30 days after the response is filed with the commission, but any subsequent proceedings or records would be open to the public.
The spokesperson declined to discuss pending complaints against any specific attorney.
The S.C. Ethics Commission, which enforces the state’s ethics laws for elected officials, told The State this week it could neither confirm nor deny if it had received a complaint about Myers’ texts with Seals.
The text messages between Myers and Seals were discovered as part of a lawsuit filed against Richland County over Seals’ settlement. The messages, which were disclosed publicly last month, show Myers advising Seals to “go big” in countering a settlement offer from the county after the county council voted 6-5 to fire Seals. Myers opposed firing him.
Some messages appear to show Myers texting Seals during times when the council was in executive session discussing a payout to Seals to avoid a lawsuit over his firing.
“DO NOT REVEAL YOU KNOW THIS,” Myers texted Seals about an hour into the closed council meeting. “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.
Myers later told The State last month that she texted Seals during breaks in the executive session.
“I encouraged him to accept a much smaller settlement than he was demanding and, if possible, return to work,” Myers said in a statement at the time. 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.”
The settlement ultimately approved by the county council included a cash payment of $800,000 plus one year’s salary of $184,000, for a total payout of $984,000.
The texts were provided by Seals in a partially redacted transcript to attorneys for a Richland County resident suing to recoup the $1 million payout Seals received.
Myers insists she acted in the best interest of the county, believing that Seals would have won a much larger judgment against the county if he had filed a lawsuit over his firing.
“The taxpayer, you or I, or any other employee would be outraged if they went into work and got screamed at, called a jackass, incompetent, and stupid for doing their jobs,” Myers said. “He would have walked out with a payday of $2 to $3 million if he went to court.”
Seals was fired after a contentious Richland County Council vote in April 2018. Seals said the vote to fire him was illegal, and wrote a letter to the council challenging their reasons for firing him and citing “irregularities” and potential unethical behavior on the part of council members. The council ultimately approved of a $1 million settlement for the ousted leader.
Myers said the lawyers commission does not have jurisdiction over the issue, because she was acting in her role as an elected member of Richland County Council.
“I’m not Gerald Seals’ lawyer, I’m his boss,” Myers said. “He asked me what I thought, and as his boss, I have a right to have an opinion that’s different from other people.”
Myers said last week she was “tired of this foolishness.”
“If one more person asks me about this bull----, I will demand Gerald Seals give the money back, and go tell what he knows.”
John Freeman, an emeritus professor at the University of South Carolina law school, thinks it is unlikely the Commission on Lawyer Conduct will take action against Myers, because she was acting as a councilwoman in handling Seals’ contract and not as an attorney.
But he is still critical of Myers’ conduct.
“The classic conflict of interest is trying to serve two masters,” Freeman said. “That’s in the Bible. It’s been a bad idea for a long time.”
He compared Myers’ actions to the council negotiating to buy a piece of property, and a council member working to get more money for the property owner on the other side of the negotiations, because of a prior association with them.
He said information shared in a closed executive session is a violation of the confidentiality that’s expected during discussions of sensitive information.
“The idea that she’s texting during a break, that’s laughable,” Freeman said. “Who’s interest is Myers serving? She’s supposed to serve the public, i.e., the taxpayer.”
But Gregory Adams, another USC law professor specializing in ethics, said it is possible Myers’ conduct could be sanctioned for violating South Carolina court rules that prohibit attorneys from engaging in “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”
“It seems a case could be made that this is at least dishonest and deceitful,” Adams said.
The same rules also specify that “Lawyers holding public office assume legal responsibilities going beyond those of other citizens.
“A lawyer’s abuse of public office can suggest an inability to fulfill the professional role of lawyers,” it reads.
But Myers is defiant.
“I have not done one thing to shame the taxpayer or cost the taxpayer money,” Myers said. “I have worked to protect the integrity and honor of the county... I can defend all my actions.”