Following internal drama, will Horry County Council vote on conflict of interest law?

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Last week, as Horry County Council members were arguing about how a council meeting was handled, Council member Dennis DiSabato raised the tensions.

Responding to an email from Council Chairman Johnny Gardner — in which Gardner rebuked DiSabato for moving to end the May 4 council meeting early — DiSabato revealed that he had asked county lawyers to draft a new ordinance that would bar county officials, council members and their immediate family members from winning paid contracts with the county.

“The intent here, Mr. Chairman,” DiSabato wrote, “is to protect and prevent individuals on council from undue public scrutiny of perceived improprieties stemming from such activities.”

Currently, only one council member has a contract with Horry County: Council member Al Allen. He co-owns Allen Aviation, a crop and mosquito-spraying business, with his wife, county school board member Shanda Allen, and has a $77,000 contract with the county to spray for mosquitoes. Allen’s efforts to obtain and make public information about how much Horry County pays outside attorneys was a key reason why DiSabato and other council members moved to shut down the May 4 meeting early. Some council members believe DiSabato’s proposed ordinance was a retaliatory measure against Allen. Allen has said he follows all legal and ethical rules to ensure his contract with the county is above board.

Still, DiSabato said this week that county staff is continuing to work on the ordinance.

That raises a key question: Once County Council members simmer down from last week’s drama, would any of them be willing to vote for such a conflict of interest ordinance?

According to interviews with a majority of the council, members are split on the issue, and it’s not clear if a conflict of interest ordinance has a path forward in Horry County. While some members said they think such a measure is necessary, others said they felt that existing ethics laws were sufficient while others said they would need to read the ordinance once it’s written to determine whether or not they’d vote for it.

And the two council members who could control the ordinance’s fate — Johnny Vaught, who chairs the council’s administration committee, and Gardner, who sets the council’s agendas — said it might be best to wait to vote on the ordinance, if a vote happens at all.

Taken together, that could mean that tensions among county council members will continue to boil without the body taking formal action to stamp out — or fight out — the controversies that have arisen in recent weeks.

Such conflict of interest laws are fairly common in the United States and are often part of broader ethics laws. Even if a group of lawmakers don’t have immediate conflicts of interest, such laws signal to the public that they can trust their representatives and that the officials are there to serve the public, not earn money from their position. In South Carolina, public officials aren’t barred from having private business contracts with the governments they’re part of, but state ethics laws outline specific steps those officials must take to avoid conflicts, including recusing themselves from votes that involve their business.

How — and why — a conflict of interest ordinance arose

To understand why the Horry County Council could vote on a conflict of interest ordinance, it’s important to understand the latest fight among members.

Several weeks ago, according to Allen, some local attorneys approached him with a question: How could they win contracts with Horry County to do legal work for the local government? Though the county has an internal team of lawyers who handle a myriad of legal issues, lawsuits and other matters, the county routinely contracts with outside attorneys to assist it. Recent examples include hiring an outside law firm to investigate nuisance massage parlors, and to assist the county in a lawsuit against Myrtle Beach and other local governments over the hospitality fee.

According to Allen, as he was seeking information to answer the attorneys’ question, he learned that the county had paid more than $1.2 million over the past three years for legal services from outside attorneys. Allen then sought a list of the attorneys and law firms the county had paid that money to, and how much was paid to each.

At Allen’s request, multiple people have said, Horry County attorney Arrigo Carotti compiled that information, but felt that releasing it immediately could give away parts of the county’s legal strategy. According to Vaught, Carotti approached him about whether or not to release the information, because Vaught’s committee would have a role in deciding to release the information. Vaught said that he asked several other council members for their input, and determined that council members should review the information privately first, and then vote on whether or not to release it.

Allen, though, disagreed with that tactic and said the information should be released publicly without council reviewing and voting on it first. Allen also claimed that county staff and other members of council were preventing him from reviewing the information, though Vaught and others said that wasn’t true. The morning of May 4, Allen showed up to a meeting to review the attorney information privately, but walked out when he saw other council members were there, too, he, Vaught and others said. Allen then asked Gardner to place an item on council’s agenda for that evening where the information could be made public and discussed. Gardner obliged the request.

But other council members feared that Allen, without having first reviewed the attorney information, would raise concerns about it or the county attorney publicly. Some county officials told The Sun News they feared that if Allen did that, it could lead to a situation where Allen or Gardner asked the county administrator to fire Carotti, and, if he refused, could lead to them calling for the administrator to be fired, too.

“It seemed to me that they wanted an information dump without context, and the only reason you do that is to make someone look bad,” DiSabato said last week.

Some council members have said they hoped to avoid a situation like that, so before the council could discuss the attorney fee information, DiSabato called for the meeting to end, and the meeting eventually ended early. Two years ago, in early 2019, the council had been involved in another effort to oust a county administrator at Allen and Gardner’s behest.

But Gardner was incensed by DiSabato’s action, and told him so in an email, which The Sun News obtained a copy of.

“You are not the judge of what may or may not be discussed during a council meeting,” Gardner wrote to DiSabato later in the week. “Let me assure you a discussion of county legal fees will be included on the agenda for our next meeting. You may try some antics to again hinder that discussion but I do not believe you will get a majority of council to back you next time.”

In response, DiSabato questioned Gardner’s leadership of the council.

“You have, since taking office, used opportunities such as this to exert political pressure on council to take actions that would further your own agenda. I, along with other members of this council, saw this as another such opportunity,” DiSabato wrote. “The fact is, you have lost all control of this council and have failed to effectively lead this governing body since you were elected.”

It was in that same email that DiSabato said he was seeking to introduce an ordinance to bar council from conflicts of interest.

What council members think about the ordinance

To determine if DiSabato’s ordinance could advance and become law, The Sun News attempted to interview each member of county council. Nine of the 12 members offered opinions or comment on the proposed ordinance. Two members — Harold Worley and Tyler Servant — didn’t respond to requests for comment. Allen declined to comment on the matter.

Among those who offered comment, three — including DiSabato — support the measure. Four members said they would need to review the ordinance first to determine whether or not they could support it. Two others said they doubted that such a measure was necessary for the council to adopt.

“That issue has been handled by the state, there’s enough law out there already,” Gardner said about the proposed measure. “I don’t think it would be necessary. It may be redundant.”

Vaught, whose committee would vote on the ordinance first, said he supports such an ordinance generally, but wants to see council members “heal some wounds” first.

“I’ve considered taking up something like that before, but there was no real consensus to do it. So unless there’s a consensus I don’t see it happening,” Vaught said. “We don’t need that perception (of conflicts of interest) out there but right now it looks like Dennis firing back at Al. If it wasn’t in that context I think it could be considered.”

Council member Gary Loftus, one of the other members who said he supports the ordinance, said even if Allen’s contract meets all ethical and legal standards, it creates the perception of a conflict and could discourage outside bidders from applying for contracts.

“You don’t get elected to County Council to go get contracts from the county, it’s that simple,” he said. “It does discourage outside bidding, that it does.”

Council member Danny Hardee said he didn’t see any issues with Allen’s business contract with the county, and doesn’t have a problem with officials having such contracts if they do so legally and ethically.

“I wouldn’t want anyone doing something illegal, but like I said, as long as they do it ethically and do it legally I don’t have a problem with it,” he said. “Whatever’s the best for the county is the way I would vote.”

Council member Mark Causey said at first blush he didn’t think such an ordinance was needed.

“As far as Al having the contracts, that’s been tested. They found no wrongdoing,” Causey said, referencing prior state investigations into Allen’s spraying contract. “I don’t know if we need to go down that road.”

Other council members, including Bill Howard, Cam Crawford and Orton Bellamy said they would have to review the ordinance before offering an opinion on it, and wanted to make sure such issues weren’t already covered by state ethics laws.

Though Allen declined to comment for this story, he defended his business and county contract in an email to DiSabato last week. In that message, Allen explained that he established his business in 2001 after he stopped working for the county sheriff’s department, where he was a deputy. He said he won, then lost, then won again a contract with the county to spray for mosquitoes prior to winning his council seat in 2006. Since then, he said he’s been awarded the contract a number of times and has recused himself from votes when he’s needed to. Additionally, Allen said, the state ethics commission investigated his relationship with the county and cleared him of any wrongdoing.

“Allen Aviation holds other public contracts with other government entities as well, and will move to protect its interest against any attacks,” Allen wrote to DiSabato. “As to you making threats and accusations against a privately owned business and fellow Council member, I would ask that you “cease and desist” immediately and request an apology from you for the other owner and employees of Allen Aviation.”

What happens now

At this point, it’s not clear when council may hold a vote on the proposed conflict of interest ordinance. Vaught said one definitely wouldn’t happen this month, but may happen in coming months.

“I’m definitely not going to put it on my next agenda,” Vaught said. “Right now we have enough fences to mend to not knee-jerk and come out with something like that right now.”

However, a discussion of Allen’s contract, though not DiSabato’s ordinance, is slated for Tuesday’s council meeting, according to the agenda. DiSabato requested a “discussion of the use of public funds and awarding contracts to organizations owned by council members or members of their immediate family,” it reads.

DiSabato said this week that he was still looking to push the ordinance forward, but didn’t know when council might take action on it.

“I have no idea what the timeline is,” he said. “It’s not not happening, how’s that?”

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