An investigation into alleged extortion threats involving top government officials in Horry County, South Carolina appears to be winding down …
The investigation – led by the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) – was placed in the hands of S.C. fifteenth circuit solicitor Jimmy Richardson this week. According to WBTW TV 13 (CBS – Florence/ Myrtle Beach, S.C.), Richardson received an investigatory report from SLED on Thursday (February 21). The solicitor told the station he had completed his review of the document and would soon “get up with SLED to decide what we have or don’t have.”
Multiple sources close to the investigation have told us indictments in this case are “unlikely,” especially considering the local crony capitalist leaders who were ostensibly targeted by the alleged threats were reportedly disinclined to assist investigators.
“A case is not made based on what you think happened or what you believe happened or even what you may know happened – a case is only made based on what you can prove.” a source familiar with the inquiry told us, adding that such a standard becomes”even more difficult when alleged victims are uncooperative.”
To recap: Horry County administrator Chris Eldridge and county attorney Arrigo Carotti sought the SLED probe after newly elected council chairman Johnny Gardner – the self-proclaimed “people’s candidate” – was accused of being part of an alleged shakedown of a local economic development leader.
In December, Carotti submitted a five-page memo detailing this alleged scheme – which was said to have involved Gardner and Luke Barefoot, the council chairman’s aide-de-camp. According to the memo, Barefoot and Gardner met last year with Sandy Davis, the new president and chief executive officer of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation (MBREDC). This organization is a crony capitalist association which receives $1.1 million annually from county taxpayers to promote job growth in the region.
At this meeting – which one of Davis’ associates surreptitiously recorded – Barefoot allegedly told Davis (in Gardner’s presence) that she could “head off” negative media coverage about herself and her organization by paying $40,000 to the incoming chairman’s political consultant, Conway, S.C.-based advisor Donald Smith. It was further suggested, according to the memo, that the payment could be disguised in such a way as to give her “political cover.”
Barefoot allegedly identified Paul Gable – editor of Grand Strand Daily – as the media figure who was contemplating negative coverage of Davis and the MBREDC.
This news outlet made no value judgment as to the substance of the Carotti report – we merely reported on its contents based on the documentation we were provided. Nonetheless, shortly after our story ran we were assailed by Gable and other coastal media outlets as being part of some nefarious conspiracy to undermine Gardner. One outlet went so far as to allege that a prominent coastal businessman was planning to drop his recently filed lawsuit against this news outlet in exchange for our publication of the story.
A quid pro quo, as it were.
Interestingly, this businessman’s lawsuit – which we maintain is totally without merit – will be the subject of a preliminary hearing next month in Georgetown, S.C. Additionally, our founding editor Will Folks was served with an expansive discovery request earlier this month in connection with the suit.
So … there goes that theory.
Again, we have made no value judgment as to the veracity of the allegations against the chairman and his entourage. As we noted in our most recent treatment of this drama, “if the narrative contained in the Carotti memo is confirmed … then we believe Gardner and his allies would have some serious explaining to do, although it remains to be seen whether anything criminal or unethical transpired in connection with either the memo or the recording … (o)r whether Gardner simply displayed what would fall into the category of atrocious judgment.”
It seems abundantly clear some exceedingly shady machinations were employed by pro-Gardner forces in connection with this incident, but whether these actions criminal in nature is ultimately up to Richardson to determine.
Stay tuned … it sounds as though this determination is coming sooner rather than later.
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