A lawyer in Summerville, South Carolina is doing a deep dive into some of the Berkeley County school district shenanigans this news outlet has been covering in recent weeks.
Attorney Tom Fernandez – no stranger to high-profile battles with elected officials – sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the district last week seeking “all emails from 2016” referencing the law firm formerly known as Childs and Halligan.
What is he looking for?
Well, Childs and Halligan was unceremoniously fired by Berkeley County’s school board almost immediately after the November 2016 elections – a race in which Berkeley County councilman Josh Whitley endorsed and financially supported multiple candidates for the board.
Days later these board members turned around and hired Whitley’s law firm, Smyth Whitley, to handle the district’s legal work. In fact, as we reported last week, transparency records reveal the district has paid Whitley’s firm a staggering $550,000 since December 2016.
Fernandez doesn’t think that’s right …
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In a letter to the editor of The Berkeley Independent published last week, Fernandez wrote “to express my utter disgust at the business dealings of our local school district board members.”
“Only hours after raising their hands to uphold all that we think is ethical, they are running into their dark smoke-filled back room, firing their longtime legal counsel … and they’re hiring the attorney politician that threw thousands of dollars at them during their campaigns,” he added.
Fernandez isn’t the only one who found this situation concerning. Numerous citizens have called into question the ethics of the board’s decision to fire Childs and Halligan and hire Whitley’s firm.
“Whitley, as a current Berkeley County councilman, openly endorsed and supported the campaigns of the newly elected school board members,” Sue Willis of Goose Creek, S.C. noted in a letter to the editor of The (Goose Creek) Gazette. “The self proclaimed ‘like-minded coalition’ of new elected trustees, ushered onto the board by Whitley, then emerged from their very first executive session on November 15 having not only fired long time district legal counsel of Childs and Halligan, but also having hired Smyth Whitley, Josh Whitley’s own firm, to now represent them.”
“The school board should hire legal counsel with no obvious conflict of interest,” Willis added.
We concur …
(Click to view)
(Via: Berkeley County School District)
Adding another layer of intrigue to the mix? Whitley is closely affiliated with Berkeley school board member Mac McQuillin – whose firm is employed by Berkeley county council, where Whitley is a member and head of the finance committee.
“Our elected officials are directing taxpayer dollars into each other’s pockets in the form of legal fees paid,” one resident complained to The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier in March of 2017. “While all of this may be perfectly legal, it gives the appearance of being perfectly unethical.”
Ironically, McQuillin ran for his post on a promise to lower the legal fees paid by the district. Instead, those fees skyrocketed by a whopping 108 percent in the current district budget – with much of that largesse going to Whitley’s firm.
Fernandez is hoping to use his FOIA campaign to uncover exactly what precipitated the legal switcheroo in Berkeley County.
“The purpose of these FOIA’s is to force Josh Whitley’s transparency about his dealings with the Berkeley County school district,” he told us this week. “Likewise, our elected officials within the school district must be transparent on all of their dealings; especially those that raise reasonable suspicion of unethical behavior like the hiring of Josh Whitley as legal counsel.”
Fernandez also did not mince words as to what he believes should happen in the event his transparency bid uncovers any damning documents.
“If there is any impropriety in Whitley becoming the school district’s attorney, I am calling for him to terminate his law firm’s representation of the school district immediately,” Fernandez told us. “At the very least, the minutes of the executive session called only hours after his friends were sworn in as the school district’s elected board members, should be revealed for everyone to read.”
Stay tuned … this saga is heating up quite quickly in the aftermath of our original coverage two weeks ago.
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