Three candidates running for South Carolina's 4th Congressional District seat have arrest records and have openly addressed at least some aspects of their past legal issues.
Three others who have multiple civil judgments against them have been less forthcoming about their financial struggles.
They are among 19 candidates in a crowded race to replace Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, a former Upstate solicitor who built a national reputation during eight years in Congress. Gowdy announced earlier this year he would not seek reelection.
Thirteen Republicans, five Democrats and one third-party candidate are running for the seat. The Republican and Democratic primaries will take place June 12. The winner of the Nov. 6 general election will represent a district that includes most of Greenville County and all of Spartanburg County.
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The Greenville News and Independent Mail routinely conduct background checks of candidates for public office. The reviews include a search of state criminal records, court filings and a review of available public records in South Carolina and other states in which the candidates have lived.
The three candidates who have been arrested are Republican Josh Kimbrell, Democrat Brandon Brown and Republican Mark Burns.
When he announced his candidacy on March 12, Kimbrell immediately mentioned his 2014 arrest on a charge of criminal sexual conduct with a minor that was later dropped due to insufficient evidence.
“I was charged and arrested for something that I never did,” he said. “I was accused of abusing my own little boy, whom I love more than life itself.”
Brown wrote about his 2014 DUI arrest near his former home in Georgia in a column he submitted last month to The Greenville News about the arrests of two black men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. After his arrest, Brown pleaded guilty to charges of reckless driving and failure maintain a lane, according to court records.
"In June of 2014... I was accused of DUI and understanding my rights, I allowed the legal process to work," Brown wrote. "At the time I was a Vice President at a local college, well connected in the community, in the process of helping students realize their dreams of higher education. As a visible, respected member of the community, I had two choices the night I was stopped in front of my home... I could argue with the officer about my innocence, list my credentials as a vibrant member of the community, reach for my phone to call the mayor, police chief or commission chair who I had been working with to strengthen the community.
"Or, I could live another day by complying with the officers wishes, getting fingerprinted, getting a mug shot, getting accused… but allowing the legal process to work out in the court room and not on the street or the morgue."
Brown was fired as a vice president at Paine College in October 2014. He filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in federal court that was settled in March. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed. His DUI arrest was not mentioned in court documents related to the case.
Easley pastor Mark Burns talked about his criminal history at a news conference in Greenville last month. He was found not guilty of assault and battery in 2003. He was found guilty on at least two occasions in Greenville County of driving with a suspended license, court records show. Burns said in an interview that his license was suspended because he could not afford to pay traffic fines.
"I have been arrested four times," Burns said at a news conference.
"It is perplexing to me how candidates and politicians try to present themselves as this perfect, no-mistake type of person," Burns said in a recent interview. "That is not reality, and that is why people don't trust politics or politicians."
Burns and Brown are not the only 4th District candidates with traffic-related infractions.
State Rep. Dan Hamilton, a Republican from Greenville, was cited for speeding seven times between 1993 and 2012, court records show. He also paid a $50 fine for reckless driving in 2002. Hamilton said he hasn't had any tickets in the past few years.
Another Republican, James Epley, was found guilty of driving while impaired in 1988 in Wilkes County, North Carolina.
Court records show that Epley also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor worthless check charge in 1995 in Burke County, North Carolina.
"As a young man, I made some mistakes," Epley wrote in an email. He responded only to emailed questions after declining to answer questions when contacted by phone, saying he was concerned about being misquoted.
Civil judgments and bankruptcies for congressional candidates
Epley is one of three Republicans in the 4th District race who has had numerous civil judgments entered against them. The others are Dan Albert and former state Sen. Lee Bright.
Epley, Albert and Bright have not discussed their personal finances at campaign events, but each answered questions about the court findings for this article.
Between 2007 and 2016, records show that courts in North Carolina and South Carolina approved more than a dozen judgments totaling at least $438,000 against Epley and three of his companies, Vertex Building Corp, Vertex Management LLC and Arbor Greenbuilders LLC.
Two of the judgments against Epley were awarded to a Charlotte couple who are now retired. A judge ruled in 2009 that Epley owed $16,962 to Narasimhan Jagannathan for failing to repay a 2006 promissory note. The same year, a judge ruled that Epley owed $143,656 to Meera Jagannathan in connection with a $520,000 house that Epley's company was supposed to build in Charlotte.
Narasimhan Jagannathan said Epley still has not paid off the two judgments totaling $160,000.
"He is a good man," Narasimhan Jagannathan said, "but he needs a lot more understanding of money management."
In his emailed response to questions, Epley wrote, "Like most people in the real estate industry, I took a beating during the Great Recession and the anemic Obama recovery that followed, but I have endured and survived.
"As a result, I have been fortunate enough to also enjoy great success and built a multi-million dollar business. It is my life experience that affirms my faith in the American dream and galvanizes my desire to preserve that dream for future generations."
Epley served as the Upstate regional director for President Donald Trump's presidential campaign. After the 2016 election, he was appointed to a position in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He said he spent about six months in Washington before returning to South Carolina. Epley managed Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant's gubernatorial campaign until he decided to enter the 4th District race.
Albert, who earned a master's degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1990, and Bright also blamed the economic downturn a decade ago for causing the demise of their businesses and subsequent legal judgments.
"My business is down about 75 percent," Albert stated in a September 2012 court hearing involving foreclosure proceedings on a parcel that he bought in 2006 for $795,000 from Bob Jones University for his landscaping-products company. The university reacquired the property on Wade Hampton Boulevard in a public sale, court records show.
Two companies that Albert ran, South Carolina-based Madawaska Hardscape Products Inc. and Maine-based 222 Riverside Corp., filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy petitions in 2012.
Also in 2012, JPMorgan Chase Bank won a $67,835 judgment against Albert in connection with the unpaid portion of a $100,000 loan made to Madawaska in 2005. In 2011, Cornerstone National Bank received a$70,665judgement against Albert stemming from a 2003 promissory note, court records show.
Albert also has three unsatisfied tax liens totaling nearly $12,700, according to Greenville County records.
Last year, he filed paperwork to appeal a $100,000 judgment for one of Madawaska's former suppliers. This year he appealed a judgment on behalf of his homeowner's association that is seeking $1,800 in assessment fees and interest, according to court records.
Albert said in an interview that the 2008 economic crash "led to a domino effect" that resulted in the eventual closure of his business. He said he hopes to reopen the business at some point in the future.
"I've learned so much," said Albert, who's based his congressional campaign largely on ideas outlined in his 2017 book, "The Albert Plan to Save America."
When Bright made an unsuccessful run against U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2014, he filed a federal financial disclosure listing debts of between $1.4 million and $3.1 million.
According to court records, four judgments totaling about $300,000 were entered against Bright and his defunct trucking business, On Time Transportation Inc., between 2013 and 2015.
"My business failed. I didn't file bankruptcy, and there were personal guarantees, and you have to deal with those," Bright said. "I pay what I can when I can.
"When 2008 happened, instead of going out of business, I borrowed, and I shouldn't have."
Bright, who is now selling property casualty insurance and working for another trucking company, lost a bid for a third term in the state Senate in 2016. He predicted that voters in the upcoming GOP primary for the 4th District seat won't hold his past financial problems against him.
"A lot of people who are going to be casting votes remember what '08 was like. A lot of them had their own personal financial struggles," he said. "I think I have a pretty good record of protecting the treasury in Columbia, and I plan to do the same thing in Washington."
According to results of a poll conducted in late April, Bright is leading the Republican field in the 4th District race. Of 400 primary voters surveyed by GOPAC Election Fund, 13 percent said they are backing Bright. Kimbrell was running second at 7 percent.
The poll, which had a margin of error of 4.9 percent, also found that 63 percent of voters remain undecided.
The Greenville News and Greenville Chamber of Commerce will host a forum for the candidates in the race from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. May 30 at the Hughes Main Library in downtown Greenville.
Details of criminal cases for congressional candidates
Besides the comments he made when he announced his candidacy on March 12, Kimbrell also alluded to his 2014 arrest during an April 9 candidate forum hosted by the Greenville tea party.
“I also know what it is like to have your government attack you,” he said. “I fought back just to have the right to be the primary custodian of that little boy standing right there in the back."
Kimbrell and his ex-wife, who is now known as Kacy Elizabeth Lyons Hatmaker, were married in October 2009. They separated in July 2011 when their son was less than a month old. They divorced in August 2013. Although the divorce file is sealed, information about their custody dispute is in a file at Greenville County Family Court.
In a June 2014 report, Spartanburg attorney Susan Fretwell said Hatmaker and her family claimed that Kimbrell "brandished a gun in anger" when the couple separated, according to court records. Fretwell was serving as guardian ad litem in the custody dispute.
In an interview with The Greenville News and Independent Mail, Kimbrell denied that claim as well as two allegations of sexual abuse involving his son that were made by Hatmaker.
"All of it was a bunch of crap," he said.
The first sexual abuse allegation was reported to the Mauldin Police Department in 2014. No charges were filed, and the state Department of Social Services deemed the allegation to be unfounded.
Kimbrell's arrest in October 2014 came after Hatmaker made another abuse allegation with Greenville police. She passed a polygraph after filing her report. Based on the advice of his criminal attorney, Kimbrell said, he refused to take a similar lie-detector test.
Results of polygraph exams are not admissible in South Carolina courts.
Four months later, 13th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins dropped the charge against Kimbrell after determining "there is insufficient evidence to prove the elements of this crime beyond a reasonable doubt."
Following a trial related to the custody dispute, a family court judge concluded that "neither parent is untainted by some fault in this."
The judge ultimately ruled that Kimbrell was innocent of any wrongdoing and that Hatmaker's "actions or omissions have posed a substantial risk of mental injury to the child."
In 2016, Hatmaker and Kimbrell reached a settlement giving Kimbrell full custody of their son. Hatmaker was granted visitation rights. Under terms of the settlement, Kimbrell and Hatmaker also agreed to "use discretion and act in good faith regarding any discussion of this matter publicly."
Shortly after the agreement was reached, Kimbrell published a book entitled "Fatherhood on Trial."
Kimbrell said his ex-wife's allegations were untruthful and a ploy to gain custody of their son and move out-of-state with her new husband.
Attempts to reach Hatmaker were unsuccessful.
Kimbrell's attorney in the custody dispute, Greenville lawyer Vanessa Kormylo, said her client experienced "a lot of trauma."
"He is still angry that this happened," she said, adding that Kimbrell is seeking to honor terms of the settlement with Hatmaker by "trying to hold back how he really feels."
As for 4th District candidate Brown, his June 2014 DUI arrest resulted in a sentence of 80 hours of community service and a year of probation. He also paid a $1,320 fine after pleading guilty to reckless driving and failure to maintain lane, according to court records.
Brown refused to submit to breath or blood tests when he was arrested, according to Katie Scott, an employee in the Richmond County Clerk of Court office.
Brown, who served as a campaign aide to former Vice President Joe Biden during his unsuccessful run for president in 2008, declined to answer questions when contacted by the Independent Mail and The Greenville News.
His current attorney, Greenville lawyer Fletcher Smith, said, "The public record speaks for itself."
Burns said he is "not proud" of his criminal history. Still talking about his past helps him relate to the voters who have made mistakes in their lives, he said.
"My mess has really become my message," said Burns, who gained national attention for speaking at campaign rallies for Trump and at the 2016 Republican National Convention. "My past pains have become my pulpit to inspire the everyday person."
Although Burns lives outside the 4th District, he is still eligible to run for the seat. Federal law requires a congressional candidate to reside only in the state of the seat that he is seeking.
In March, a New Jersey company called Torgro Inc. won a $12,750 judgement against Burns, The Harvest Praise Worship Center and the "Lift Your Voice Gospel Show," according to New Jersey court records. Torgro claimed that Brown failed to pay for a 1991 Van Hool 48-passenger motor coach that he had agreed to buy on eBbay, court records show.
Burns, who is pastor of Harvest Praise & Worship Center and co-founder of NOW Television Network, said he had no knowledge of the case.