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SC County Official Stalked, Threatened And Secretly Recorded Female Treasurer, Lawsuit Says

Case raises questions about attitudes toward female leaders in the Palmetto State’s wealthiest county …

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Beaufort County

In a bombshell lawsuit, a rising star in the South Carolina Republican firmament accused a male Beaufort County leader of stalking and threatening her — and said other elected officials enabled his abusive behavior.

Beaufort county treasurer Maria Walls filed the lawsuit against the county and its auditor — James “Jim” Beckert — on August 17. Kacen Bayless of The (Hilton Head, S.C.) Island Packet first reported the story last week.

FITSNews reported on Walls back in October as GOP sources indicated she was being aggressively courted as a possible statewide candidate in future elections.

Walls’ lawsuit accuses Beaufort County of systemically protecting Beckert and his bully-like, abusive behavior toward not only her, but other county employees — particularly female employees.

The accusations beg the question: Does Beaufort County — the richest county in South Carolina — have issues with female leadership? Or, at the very least, is it falling short of protecting its female leaders and other women in its employ from unwanted harassment?

Sources close to the situation tell FITSNews it is likely other victims will come forward following Walls’ lawsuit — which they say accurately reflects the good ole boy system’s treatment of female leaders. This treatment is said to continue even after the county hired its first female administrator Ashley Jacobs in 2019.

According to the lawsuit, it was filed “after years of Beckert harassing, bullying, defaming and threatening Walls.”

“Prior to this lawsuit, Walls exhausted all other resources, including informing and/or seeking help from the Beaufort County Administrator (past and present), the Deputy County Administrator, Beaufort County Council members, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, the County Attorney, the County’s Human Resources Department and others,” the complaint stated.

The current Beaufort County council consists of ten men and one woman. Sources say many male council members repeatedly failed to take the complaints against Beckert seriously. In South Carolina, county council members can vote to ask the governor to remove an elected official from office.

The lawsuit claims Beaufort County “seemingly permitted” Beckert’s stalking behavior, which created a hostile work environment for Walls and other female employees.

“Former County employees describe Beckert as a bully, totalitarian and abusive especially toward women,” the lawsuit said.


What happened?

Walls, a certified public accountant, was elected to her current office in 2014 after serving for four years as deputy treasurer. After her first year as an elected official, she was named “office holder of the year” by Thomson Reuters for “having achieved excellence in planning, leadership and service” in Beaufort County.

The following year, the SCGOP awarded Walls its top local government honor for “outstanding service to Beaufort County through the exemplification of conservative principles in public office.”

During Walls’ first four-year term, Beaufort County’s budget was trimmed by 13.6 percent and actual expenditures were reduced by 12 percent.

But despite these accomplishments, Beckert appeared to have problems with Walls from the beginning, the lawsuit alleges.

(Click to view)

Maria Walls

The lawsuit meticulously describes —and includes photos of — numerous situations where Beckert exhibited escalating abusive behavior toward Walls. This started when they first met in March 2014 at an event when Beckert interrupted Walls as she made her way to the podium for her speech and told her “if she didn’t step on his toes, he wouldn’t stomp on hers,” the lawsuit said.

Months later, Beckert accused Walls of breaking the law and threatening to expose her after she read a letter endorsing then-treasurer Douglas Henderson at the Republican club, the complaint said.

In 2015, then-county auditor Sharon Burris called Walls to warn her about Beckert often making threats about Walls and saying he wants to put Walls “in her place,” according to the lawsuit.

Beckert’s hostile behavior toward Walls escalated over time — particularly around the time he took over as Beaufort county auditor, the lawsuit said.

According to the lawsuit, Walls first caught Beckert secretly recording her during a meeting between the two of them in August 2015. Beckert held an envelope with a recording device inside.

“Throughout the meeting, Beckert’s only substantive comments were to threaten legal action if Walls opposed his way of doing things,” the lawsuit said. “This meeting is one of the many times Beckert’s tone and demeanor made Walls feel uncomfortable and threatened.”

The video screenshots above show Beckert attempting to conceal his recording device in an envelope, the lawsuit said.

After the meeting, Walls reported Beckert’s inappropriate secret recording to then-deputy county administrator (now Hilton Head assistant town manager) Josh Gruber.

Beckert made “unfounded false accusations against Walls to County Council” on numerous occasions and his “outrageous conduct” only progressed over time, the lawsuit said.

Walls discovered some interesting information about Beckert when she filed a FOIA request for his personnel file. Before he was elected as auditor in 2014, Beckert applied for 24 positions within Beaufort County, including three lifeguard positions, and three positions in the Beaufort County treasurers office.

He was hired for only two of these positions — summer lifeguard and judicial tech. He was fired from the judicial tech job after a few weeks due to his “level of performance decreasing as time passes,” the lawsuit said.

Beckert then sued Walls and Beaufort County for releasing his personal information and accused the county of improper redacting.

(Click to view)

Jim Beckert

Who is on the losing end of all this back-and-forth allegedly initiated by Beckert? Taxpayers.

“Beckert’s continuous publications of false and defamatory statements about Walls and County employees has forced Walls and County employees to spend inordinate amounts of time and resources defending themselves to meritless accusations rather than the performance of job duties,” the lawsuit said. “Beckert’s false accusations are made using taxpayer dollars and the inordinate amount of time required to respond to his false accusations cost taxpayer money for Walls and County employees.”

Alleged Stalking, Threatening Behavior

Beckert’s stalking behavior became more aggressive and more obvious in 2016, the lawsuit alleged.

“In 2016, Beckert began to take frequent (multiple times per week) walks past Walls’ office window, often just standing and watching Walls work in an attempt to make Walls feel uncomfortable and/ or unsafe,” the lawsuit said.

While she was working, Walls would often look up and see Beckert “glaring at her” and he would not walk away when he was caught, “in an attempt to intimidate and bully Walls,” the lawsuit said.

Finally in November 2016, after Walls caught Beckert staring through her window another time, she alerted Beaufort County administration.

“This is just one instance County Administration was alerted to Beckert’s inappropriate and threatening behavior,”the lawsuit said. “Walls informed
County Administration multiple times to no avail – Walls was informed there was nothing County Administration could do as Beckert is an elected official.”

In March 2017, county administration made an interesting move in response to complaints about Beckert’s alleged stalking, the lawsuit said.

Instead of dealing with Beckert directly, they installed an exterior camera system outside of Walls’ office “in an attempt to document and/ or deter Beckert’s behavior towards Walls,” the lawsuit said.

“The cameras seemed to deter Beckert from glaring into Walls’ window for a short amount of time – Beckert resumed this disturbing behavior, continuously, in January of 2020,” the lawsuit said. “However, after the cameras’ installation, Beckert began intercepting Walls in the hallway much more frequently than before.”

Beckert strategically planned these run-ins with Walls in the hallways, the lawsuit said.

“Beckert used the County’s hallway security cameras to stalk Walls’ movements and accost her when possible,” the complaint stated. “Beckert is known for improperly using the County’s cameras to intercept others, especially women. Beckert’s access to cameras has been revoked due to his disturbing, inappropriate use.”

Beckert made multiple inappropriate comments about Walls’ pregnancy in December 2017, the lawsuit said.

“Beckert expressed shock and interest in Walls’ state and her abdomen,” the lawsuit said.

In a December 2017 community meeting, Beckert was caught secretly recording Walls with his cellphone (shown below), according to the lawsuit.

(Click to view)

The image above shows one of many occasions when Beckert filmed Walls in meetings and in
public spaces, according to the lawsuit.

County councilman Paul Summerville witnessed Beckert’s inappropriate behavior, the lawsuit said.

“A few days later, Beckert followed Walls out of the building, asking about her pregnancy and eerily stated that he hoped nothing bad happened to her while she was out of the office or driving home from work one day,” the lawsuit said.

Beckert’s staff member said he was talking about Walls pregnancy behind her back one day and said in a “chilling” voice that it would “be a shame if things didn’t go well for (Walls).”

Fearing For Her Safety

Walls reported Beckert’s threatening behavior to the Beaufort County sheriff’s office.

“Walls was informed that because Beckert was an elected official, there
was very little that could be done – the Sheriff thought that even him speaking to Beckert would only embolden Beckert’s behavior,” the lawsuit said. “The Sheriff, in response to Walls’ safety concerns, offered to have officers, or himself, present at her speaking engagements.”

In fear for her safety because of Beckert’s behavior, Walls does not go anywhere alone on county property, nor does she attend events alone, according to the lawsuit.

In another incident, Beckert “stormed across the Courthouse green” and climbed over a retaining wall to get to Wall’s window.

“Walls, along with two (2) County employees, noticed Beckert about halfway across the lawn – he glared at her throughout this spectacle until he walked out of sight,” the lawsuit said.

(Click to view)


The screenshots above were”taken from the County’s exterior cameras, placed outside of Walls’ office.” The screenshots “represent a more recent example of Beckert’s behavior in 2020,” the lawsuit said.

On Feb. 27, Walls met with outside counsel about a letter from Beckert’s office. Concerned for her safety, they advised her to reach out to the sheriff’s office again to report his behavior.

On March 2, Walls was told by sheriff’s office officials she could file a complaint with the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED).

After that meeting, Walls reached out to a private investigator who told her Beckert had made corruption accusations against Walls to the FBI, according to the lawsuit. The accusations were found to be “meritless.”

Two days after that meeting, Beckert was seen outside of Walls’ office window “to glare at her in an attempt to make her feel unsafe and/ or intimidate her,” the lawsuit said.

“Throughout Walls’ tenure, she has been subjected to frequent, unwelcome verbal attacks and harassment by Beckert,” the lawsuit said. “Walls informed County officials on numerous occasions about Beckert’s abusive and threatening behavior in an attempt to have the County provide a safe non-hostile workplace for the Treasurer’s Office and County employees.”

Walls is suing Beaufort County for negligence and assumption of a duty. She is suing Beckert for outrage, assault, defamation and injunction.

Hampton attorneys Chelci Avant and Ronnie Crosby are representing Walls in the lawsuit.

Female Leadership

Sources told FITSNews that members of Beaufort County Council “seem to have trouble with women in leadership roles,” particularly taking issue with Jacobs.

Supporters of Jacobs say she has spent the past year cleaning up corruption, fixing a broken system and positioning the county toward greater accountability to taxpayers. 

Her efforts, however, have resulted in relentless backlash from two longtime council members who are said to have been involved in several staff-involved schemes to push out Jacobs.

This news outlet touched on these stories in this piece published back in February.

Both Jacobs and Walls are well-liked among staff and widely respected for modernizing the county, ferreting out waste and protecting county assets.

It’s unclear whether S.C. governor Henry McMaster has been asked to intervene and remove Beckert from office, but sources say it is possible the county could ask him to do so.

Editor’s note: In response to this story, Maria Walls sent FITSNews a statement here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR..

Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an investigative journalist from Kansas who has worked for newspapers in Missouri, Illinois, and South Carolina before making the switch to FITS. She currently lives on Hilton Head Island where she enjoys beach life. Mandy also hosts the Murdaugh Murders podcast. Want to contact Mandy? Send your tips to [email protected].

*****

ABOUT THE AUTHOR..

Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an investigative journalist from Kansas who has worked for newspapers in Missouri, Illinois, and South Carolina before making the switch to FITS. She currently lives on Hilton Head Island where she enjoys beach life. Mandy also hosts the Murdaugh Murders podcast. Want to contact Mandy? Send your tips to [email protected].

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