Politics & Government

No punishment for S.C. House Dems whose feud turned physical

Two S.C. House members will not be punished for an argument last month that turned physical.

Citing a lack of clear evidence about who initiated the physical contact, House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, advised the lawmakers involved – state Reps. Gilda Cobb-Hunter and Jerry Govan, both Orangeburg Democrats – to keep their disagreements civil and professional in the future.

“If clearer evidence of who initiated the physical contact existed, I can assure you both that severe consequences would result,” Lucas said in a Tuesday letter to the lawmakers.

“(N)either I nor the South Carolina House of Representatives has any tolerance for unwanted physical contact by or with members of staff,” he said. “I want to reiterate the emphasis all of us must place on civil, professional interactions, regardless of the circumstances.”

Cobb-Hunter, who has worked for decades with domestic violence victims, said she was disappointed in the investigation's outcome. "I really felt something very similar to victimization when I read this letter."

Cobb-Hunter said Govan grabbed her wrist and twisted her arm, causing her to walk around with an ice pack for the day.

Govan, who was removed from the powerful House Judiciary Committee in 2004 after a heated exchange with another lawmaker, declined to react to Cobb-Hunter's version of what happened.

Lucas did a thorough job investigating, Govan said. "As a Christian, I strive to live up to a principle of forgiveness and reconciliation," he said, adding he had that mindset after the incident and has it now.

Neither lawmaker pressed charges over the incident.

Govan and Cobb-Hunter had their falling out May 11, the last official day of the legislative session. The lawmakers were arguing over a bill to consolidate Orangeburg County school districts, The State previously reported.

At some point, there was physical contact, Lucas said in his letter. But a subsequent investigation – conducted by an outside law firm – yielded accounts that “vary dramatically,” the speaker wrote.

Two House staff members and three House members who were nearby when the incident occurred were interviewed as part of the investigation. The witnesses said they did not see physical contact take place, and Cobb-Hunter’s and Govan’s versions of events also were different, Lucas said.

The confrontation took place in a narrow hallway between the House chamber and a private meeting room for Senate and House members.

Lucas said some details were consistent in all accounts: The lawmakers were arguing and raising their voices. Govan approached Cobb-Hunter who, at first, was moving away from Govan. Cobb-Hunter’s arm was “extended away from her body and in close proximity to Rep. Govan.” Finally, Cobb-Hunter and Govan made some form of “mutual physical contact with one another as a result of the confrontation.”

Lucas said Govan “bears a higher level of responsibility to have avoided this incident, having been the initial aggressor” by walking toward Cobb-Hunter.