Matter settled by consent order
By Charlie McCarty with additional reporting by Warren Cobb
Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin has agreed to pay $2,000 in fees and admitted to violating state ethics laws. The S.C. Ethics Commission had found probable cause of four violations at its May 2015 meeting in Columbia.
During the Commission meeting, the body examined several cases, including C2015-066: Carl B. Beckmann Jr. vs. Timothy Goodwin. During Executive Session, Ethics Commission Chariman James Warren presented a response from Mayor Goodwin, who was represented by Ben Peeples. State Ethics Investigator James Bagnall gave a history of events, noting that the complaint was very long, consisted of multiple issues, and that a mistake was made by the Respondent in a newsletter. Considerable discussion ensued concerning persons who were behind the Complainant; any cover ups; details of certain events; the mayor taking full responsibility; and previous complaints from this group. Further discussion ensued concerning confidentiality; waiving further proceedings; and finding probable cause.
Commissioner James Grimball made a motion, seconded by Commissioner Thomas Galardi, to accept staff recommendation and find that probable cause exists to support the following charges: Two counts of violating Section 8-13-1346 (A) for authorizing the use of public funds, property, or time to produce and distribute documents in order to influence the outcome of a referendum. Two counts of violating Section 8-13-765 (A) for using governmental personnel, equipment, materials and an office building in an election campaign.
And Grimball further moved, seconded by Galardi, to accept staff recommendation to find probable cause exists to support the charge of one count of violating Section 8-13-320 (10)(g) for violating the confidentiality of the investigative process, but for this count only, waive further proceedings. Chairman Warren asked for further discussion or opposition. There being none, the motions carried with a 9 to 0 vote.
Peeples Addresses the Issue
During the Aug. 11 meeting of Folly Beach City Council, City Attorney Ben Peeples addressed the matter directly to Council and the public. At the Citizens Comments portion of the meeting, Peeples came down from his Council area seat to the rostrum to discuss his “conversation” with the S.C. Ethics Commission. He appeared as a private attorney reporting to Council on the final resolution of the ethics complaint filed by former Mayor Carl Beckman against Mayor Goodwin in early January 2015.
He announced the complaint had been resolved (without proceeding to a scheduled November Ethics Commission hearing) by a consent order that had been negotiated between him, the Mayor and Ethics Commission staff in which the Commission found the Mayor in violation of two counts of the Ethics Reform Act. In its disposition, the Commission issued a warning to the Mayor and assessed a fine of $1,000 and an additional administrative fee of $1,000, both of which must be paid by the Mayor to the Commission within 30 days of receipt of the order that was signed by all parties and dated August 10, 2015.
Prior to his disclosure of the Commission findings and the associated penalties assessed, Peeples gave a very personal, intense and at times somewhat disjointed recounting of events and activities bearing on the Commission’s findings. (This reporter has attempted to distill key points from Peeples’ 16-minute presentation, reducing actual commentary from more than 1900 words to about 800.) Peeples minimized the impact of the violations that arose from the encouragement to “vote yes” to the tax increase for beach preservation referendum contained in the Mayor’s State of Union letter to residents and his subsequent letter to the property owners explaining their tax responsibilities. He explained each letter contained “almost a throwaway sentence about the upcoming referendum December 2.” He deemed these technical violations “of a really stupid law (the Ethics Reform Act) that says you cannot use public resources to influence a ballot measure or an election.” He acknowledged his personal fund-raising efforts and personal donations to reimburse the City for 100 percent of the costs paid by the City relating to these violations.
Peeples indicated that resident Sidney Riggs approached the Mayor and him prior to the election and sought postponement of the referendum because it had been “tainted.” Peeples submitted that the Mayor did not have that power to do that, because the election date was set by Council itself and if “anybody violated any kind of law, it would have been you all (referring to City Council) in allowing the election to go forward after the process was tainted.”
He went on to say subsequent to Riggs’ visits, “the Mayor self-reported to the election commission” by phone, e-mail and sent a letter which the Mayor subsequently published in the January issue of The Sandspur. “On January the first, Mr. Beckmann filed a 33-page ethics complaint,” Peeples said. He felt the subsequent Ethics Commission investigation was a waste of time and unnecessary in the light the Mayor’s “self-reporting” of the violations, and he accused Riggs and Beckmann of engaging in undue communications with Commission staff “trying to influence that investigation.”
He acknowledged that once the investigation results were concluded and presented, the Commission voted to pursue a hearing in November. Since then, Peeples has represented the Mayor privately. He reported the City wasn’t paying for his services. “I told him (Mayor Goodwin) you can get somebody else. You aren’t stuck with me,” Peeples said.
After Peeples’s pre-hearing examination of the investigation report, related witness list and communication logs, he negotiated with Ethics Commission staff members the terms of the final consent order in lieu of proceeding to the scheduled hearing in November. He indicated the letter was prepared in a round-table staff discussion while no one has an exact recollection of “who put it in, who suggested ‘vote yes.’” The Mayor accepted full responsibility for it. The Commission acknowledged the City’s efforts to make things right. He said the Mayor fully cooperated with the Commission and the complaint investigation. He emphasized the violations were completely inadvertent and unintentional.
Councilmember Clamp asked what role Mr. Riggs played in this issue, and indicated he understood Riggs wrote to the Mayor asking him to withdraw the referendum. Peeples said in reviewing the instigation he found e-mails and telephone logs indicating communications were made by Mr. Riggs. He went on to say the complaint included an exhibit related to the same ethics charges made in the Berkeley County referendum case that were reported widely in the media and were proffered as indications such violations should have been recognized by our City staff prior to its mailings. Peeples said this showed bad faith and malice. Councilmember Ellis asked if filing a baseless complaint to the Ethics Commission was a violation. In closing, Peeples answered yes, and went on to say, “this stuff needs to die.”