An audio recording of an alleged extortion attempt has paralyzed local government in Horry County, South Carolina just as the county’s new leader – self-proclaimed “people’s candidate” Johnny Gardner – is set to take office.
How bad is this rumored recording? For Gardner – who is about to take the reins of county council after ousting incumbent chairman Mark Lazarus in the June GOP primary election – it is has the potential to be absolutely devastating.
According to sources familiar with the situation, multiple council members have already discussed the need to refer the “broadening debacle” over this “veiled threat” to the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) for a proper criminal investigation. We are also informed that the individual who made the audio recording has been put on notice against destroying what many believe to be evidence of criminal activity.
Which is good advice …
Is any of this surprising to us?
Not at all … Horry County literally breeds public corruption, as evidenced by the notorious “Coastal Kickback,” one of the most brazen pay-to-play scandals this news outlet has ever covered.
Unfortunately, that scandal fizzled out completely with absolutely no accountability. Will this scandal follow the same path?
We will have to wait and see … but early indications are that Horry county leaders have an incredibly serious problem on their hands, and no idea to how to handle it.
According to a detailed, five-page memorandum compiled by Horry county attorney Arrigo Carotti, incoming council chairman Gardner attended a meeting earlier this month with Luke Barefoot – the office administrator at Gardner’s law firm, which has offices in Conway and Myrtle Beach.
(Click to view)
Gardner (above) and Barefoot met for lunch with Sandy Davis – the recently appointed president and chief executive officer of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation (MBREDC). This quasi-public entity receives $1.1 million in tax dollars from the county annually and is charged with creating jobs for the local economy.
Joining Davis at this meeting was Sherri Steele, MBREDC’s director of investor relations.
Unbeknownst to Gardner and Barefoot, Steele recorded the meeting – and portions of this recording were played on Wednesday for several members of county government: Carotti, Horry county administrator Chris Eldridge and a pair of county councilmen, Lazarus and Gary Loftus.
Carotti’s memorandum – which detailed some of the contents of the recording – was subsequently sent to every member of county council late Wednesday evening.
“We were played only about four minutes of what I understand was an hour and a half long recording,” Carotti noted in his recap of the situation, describing the audio file in question as being “of good quality, although there was a lot of background noise consistent with a restaurant.”
(Click to view)
At this early December meeting, Barefoot allegedly informed Davis (above) that a negative article “pointing out her lack of education” was forthcoming from Paul Gable, editor of the local media outlet Grand Strand Daily.
With Gardner seated next to him, Barefoot allegedly informed Davis that “she could head that off, and any similar blogs in the future” by hiring Gardner’s campaign manager – Donald Smith of Conway, S.C. – to handle public relations for the MBREDC at a cost of $40,000.
Next, according to Carotti’s memo, Barefoot is alleged to have suggested “the ($40,000) figure we had discussed” could be paid to Smith under the guise of the upcoming Beach Ball Classic high school basketball tournament, an arrangement that “would give (Davis) political cover.”
The Beach Ball Classic – held annually at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center – is set to tip off on December 26.
Barefoot is further alleged to have “inquired about how much authority (Davis) had to retain Donald Smith without going through the (MBREDC) board.”
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“What I recall specifically was the gentleman (who I assumed was Luke Barefoot) saying that Donald Smith was in the shadows and could influence votes or was somehow in control behind the scenes,” Carotti wrote in his memorandum after listening to the recording.
According to Carotti’s memo, “Luke Barefoot did all the talking, and Johnny Gardner just sat there listening.”
Within days of the original meeting at the restaurant, the county administrator – Eldridge – was sounding the alarm about this alleged extortion threat and expressing frustration at Davis’ refusal to turn over a copy of the recording to the county.
“That Donald Smith worked Johnny Gardner’s campaign is widely known,” Eldridge wrote in an email dated December 12. “Asking for thousands of dollars to be funneled to him is very concerning.”
Eldridge added that the proposed “payment to Donald Smith for a public relations contract, complete with detailed questioning on what Sandy Davis could approve herself without board approval – could be viewed as unethical and possibly illegal.”
Indeed … especially considering the incoming county council chairman was sitting right there at the table as his right-hand man allegedly outlined the deal.
Like Carotti, Eldridge was not about to let the matter lie.
“Something of this nature can’t be ‘brushed under the rug,'” he wrote. “Doing so jeopardizes the credibility of the MBREDC and all it has accomplished.”
Here is his email …
(Click to view)
Five days after sending the email, Eldridge finally got to listen to a snippet of the tape.
Of interest? Carotti noted in his lengthy memo that he was approached on Monday (December 17) by Scott Bellamy, a criminal defense lawyer in Conway, S.C. Bellamy sought – and received – a face-to-face audience with the county attorney that same day.
“(Bellamy) said he represented Donald Smith, and that he had an email in which (Eldridge) said certain things about Donald Smith, and that Donald Smith had nothing to do with the meeting and anything that was said, that he couldn’t control what others may have said, and that he didn’t want (Eldridge) to say anything more as that may affect his business,” Carotti wrote, recalling their conversation.
Bellamy also allegedly asked Carotti “if there was any way (Eldridge) could hold off” on briefing members of county council about the contents of the alleged recording.
“He stated his belief that the (MBREDC) was separate from (Horry County), and only received funds from (Horry County), and that all this should be in the hands of the board of (MBREDC), and if they determined there was something to it, then County Council could become involved,” Carotti wrote.
As of this writing, it remains unclear whether Davis or Steele will provide a copy of the recording to council members – or to any law enforcement agencies tasked with investigating this matter. Obviously, we believe the recording should immediately be provided to both county leaders and to SLED – but Carotti’s memo noted that Davis “was concerned that Gardner … had said negative things about the (MBREDC), and was afraid that this would make matters worse, and that they would really be against her.”
Davis also indicated at one point that if any criminal activity had been directed at her, she did not wish to “press charges.”
Furthermore, the county staff and council members who heard the recording this week allegedly discussed whether it “might be best to leave well enough alone,” and that “the recording would be preserved in case anything came up later.”
Carotti rejected that approach, arguing that it was not up to them to “decide that we were going to conceal the matter.”
Here is the Carotti memorandum documenting the alleged extortion attempt …
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Stay tuned … obviously this is a big, breaking story on the South Carolina coast that we will be following with keen interest in the days to come.
UPDATE: Denials are pouring in …
UPDATE II: SLED has opened a formal investigation into the allegations …
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