In what FITSNews has been told was an explosive hearing last week, the attorney for Mallory Beach‘s family accused the owner of Parker’s Kitchen gas stations of hiring a private investigator to follow Buster and Paul Murdaugh to collect information that could lessen his business’ potential liability in the boat crash case.
The private investigator was allegedly tasked with gathering details of Buster’s sex life and Paul’s underage drinking escapades, according to sources with knowledge of what transpired Wednesday at Hampton County Courthouse.
A document filed Thursday by the Beach family’s attorney refers to photographs that were apparently presented in court showing a private investigator — that “the Parker Defendants admitted they hired” — who allegedly bought alcohol for minors during her investigation of Paul Murdaugh.
The hearing pertained to the civil conspiracy case filed this past December by the Beach family, who allege that Gregory M. Parker, the CEO of Parker’s Kitchen, and his attorneys leaked photos of Mallory’s body, as well as other confidential court materials, to reporter Vicky Ward.
Parker and Ward vehemently deny this, but the Beach family attorney and his co-counsel both say Ward admitted the arrangement to them last year.
The photos and materials were used in a video trailer that was posted publicly to promote Ward’s documentary “The Murdaugh Mysteries.” Ward says the video was posted online by mistake and was only meant to be shown to a handful of people connected to the project.
The Beach family contends that Parker and his attorneys hired various agents to act on his behalf in an online campaign meant to weaken the family’s resolve in the lawsuit they filed against him and Alex and Buster Murdaugh in 2019 after Mallory Beach was killed in a boat crash.
Paul Murdaugh was charged with three felony counts of boating under the influence after the crash. Parker is a party to the case because Paul purchased alcohol using his brother’s driver’s license from a Parker’s Kitchen prior to the crash.
On Wednesday, Judge Bentley Price heard arguments from Beach family attorney Mark Tinsley as well as attorneys for Parker, including Columbia attorney Deborah Barbier, Mark Moore and Susan McWilliams of Nexsen Pruet, and Beaufort attorney Ned Tupper.
Tinsley subpoenaed a number of private investigators and two crisis PR agencies he says were hired by Parker and his attorneys in the aftermath of the boat crash.
Parker’s attorneys attempted to quash those subpoenas as well as have Parker and two members of his legal team dismissed from the case altogether, saying that the information Tinsley seeks is protected by attorney-client privilege.
They have accused Tinsley of using the civil conspiracy case as a way to gain information that might help him in the wrongful death case.
“It is clear that Plaintiffs’ counsel is on a fishing expedition.”
They also argued that Blake Greco and Jason D’Cruz, the two attorney co-defendants in the conspiracy case who participated in the mediation process, did not owe a duty to the Beach family in keeping materials shared with them private. Greco and D’Cruz are accused of releasing those confidential materials to a third party.
In an affidavit filed March 15, former assistant Disciplinary Counsel to the South Carolina Supreme Court Michael Virzi, disputed the Parker team’s argument, saying, “It is my professional opinion that Defendants Greco and D’Cruz owed duties to Plaintiffs and that the Complaint in this case alleges facts that, if true, amount to breaches of those duties.”
According to a supplemental brief filed by Parker’s attorneys Thursday, Tinsley also argued that the attorney-client privilege and work-product privileges do not apply in cases in which crime or fraud have occurred.
In the brief, Parker’s attorneys argue that “the intentional infliction of emotional distress and conspiracy claims alleged in the Complaint” would not be considered crimes or fraud, and that Tinsley has “completely failed” in presenting any facts pointing to crime or fraud.
They ask the Court to order the recipients of Tinsley’s subpoenas to return the information they gathered and return the information to “their rightful owner, Gregory M. Parker and his counsel.”
Further, they argue, the work produced for Parker by the private investigators and PR companies are merely part and parcel of the “adversary system.”
“That the Parker Defendants’ counsel actually printed those words on paper as an argument for this Court to accept is mind-boggling and offensive to all notions of judicial integrity,” Tinsley wrote in his reply to the brief.
“Allegations of civil conspiracy between lawyers and their clients are exactly the type of conduct that gives rise to the crime-fraud exception,” he wrote. “… It is quite telling that the Parker Defendants are so anxious to have all the information returned directly to them without any involvement of the Court. It makes one wonder what might be in those documents.”
Tinsley then refers to photographs presented during the hearing of private investigator Sara Capelli of Inquiry Agency who, he says, purchased alcohol for minors during her investigation of Paul Murdaugh.
“Plaintiffs’ counsel raised the issue of whether the subpoenaed documents might include receipts showing reimbursement to Ms. Capelli by the Parker Defendants for the alcohol she purchased. This is just one example of why the Parker Defendants might be anxious to have the documents returned to them for ‘safekeeping.'”
On Friday, Judge Price announced to the parties in the case that he has ruled in favor of the Beach family, meaning Capelli and Wesley Donehue of The Laurens Group and Push Digital will have to hand over information about what they did for Parker barring further action from Parker’s attorneys.
The Beach case as a whole is a complex one, and there have been a number of major developments over the past few weeks, including …
A Major Shakeup
Parker’s Kitchen appears to have ditched its longtime legal team in the 2019 boat crash case — or perhaps the team ditched Parker’s. It’s not clear.
An order was filed March 15 relieving Beaufort attorneys Mitch Griffith and Kelly Dean as well as North Charleston attorney Paul Gibson from the case, and announcing their replacements as David Lee Williford II and Mitchell D. Appleby of Huff, Powell and Bailey, a Greenville firm.
It is unusual to see such a shakeup at this stage — what many say is the homestretch of the case before trial. A new legal team would have to familiarize themselves with three years of case history, which could put them at a disadvantage in the courtroom.
A big question is what prompted the change.
Was Parker unhappy with the way the case has been going so far? Were the attorneys unhappy with their client? Or did he simply want fresh blood as the case heads toward a trial?
Another mystery: The replacement attorneys appear to specialize in medical malpractice, which is not an element of this case.
Does this represent a change in strategy for Parker’s, which thus far has sought to limit its liability through the potential application of Maritime Law?
“It’s like a goddamn clown car,” one attorney familiar with the case told FITSNews when news began to circulate of the counsel change two weeks ago.
The change in counsel in the boat crash case and the addition of Barbier to Parker’s team in the civil conspiracy case earlier this month have been the subjects of much speculation in attorney circles, with many wondering if Parker has now turned to the nuclear option.
Joe McCulloch, attorney for boat crash passenger Connor Cook, who is suing Parker in a personal injury suit, said Friday. “It’s a surprise that suddenly he is platooning lawyers.”
Barbier is a highly respected criminal attorney, known for representing high-profile clients. This case is not her only connection to the spider web that is the Murdaugh case.
On Thursday morning, Barbier appeared in court on behalf of alleged Murdaugh co-conspirator Cory Fleming, a suspended Beaufort attorney facing 18 counts in a scheme to defraud $4.3 million the family of Murdaugh’s deceased housekeeper and longtime nanny.
Fleming turned himself in to the Richland County Detention Center early Thursday and was released on bail after his bond hearing. Barbier told the court that her presence there was a “special appearance” so it is not clear whether Barbier was hired by Fleming for the bond hearing alone.
As for the Beach case, the obvious question is why does Parker think he needs a criminal attorney in a civil case, never mind one with Barbier’s clout?
This question is especially pertinent given Tinsley’s argument that the “crime/fraud exception” would apply to any claim Parker’s might have to stopping any release of Capelli’s and Donehue’s work product.
When asked in February about whether his agencies were connected to the release of confidential materials, Donehue said, “I can damn well tell you it wasn’t us. That is so beneath anything I’d feel comfortable with I don’t even know how to describe it in words. It would damn my soul to hell forever.”
He said his group — which worked with Parker directly from January through April 2021 — parted ways with the gas station CEO because “we had differences in strategic direction.”
Accusations Ramping Up
In his initial complaint in the civil conspiracy case, Tinsley accused Parker of using at least three private detectives and Donehue’s firms, which tout their aggressive tactics in brand reputation repair — including social media “knife-fighting” — to shift as much of the liability away from him to Mallory Beach and the Murdaughs.
Though the complaint does not include specific examples of these tactics beyond the release of confidential material in the case, multiple sources have told FITSNews that several accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit are suspected of having ties that trace back to Parker and his attorneys.
The accounts are alleged to have been used in an effort to discredit reporters and generate discussion over the teenagers’ decisions to board a boat driven by Paul Murdaugh, as well as lob accusations about Tinsley, including that he shared a video he produced for mediation in the boat crash case with FITSNews director Mandy Matney in 2020.
It is this video that Tinsley is accusing Parker and his attorneys of sharing with Ward.
Parker’s attorneys alleged that Tinsley had a “personal relationship” with Matney and had shared the video with her. The attorneys’ “evidence” of this was that Tinsley and Matney are linked as “friends” on Facebook and that FITSNews published a quote from Mallory’s mother, Renee Beach, that apparently was said in the video.
At the time, FITSNews chose not to publicly address the filings because we believed that the weakness of what Parker’s was calling “evidence” spoke for itself. A Facebook “friendship” is hardly a “personal relationship” and the quote used by FITSNews was clearly attributed.
Further, Matney was never shown a video by Tinsley. The quote from Renee Beach was provided to Matney by Tinsley when she asked for comment from his client.
However, the alleged “Matney connection” continues to appear in motions filed by Parker’s attorneys — perhaps in the hopes that a judge will declare that Tinsley waived his right to confidentiality and the video was no longer protected material at the time Ward obtained a copy, therefore no breach of the mediation process could have occurred on Parker’s part.
This, of course, would already be contradicted by an October 2020 filing in which Parker’s attorneys first raised the alleged “Matney connection” as it sought the court’s permission to use the video for their own purposes.
They withdrew this motion when it became clear Ward had the video and Tinsley was aware of it, according to a hearing attended by FITSNews.
According to sources and information received through Freedom of Information Act requests filed by FITSNews, Parker’s and Beach’s attorneys are the only two parties to have ever received copies of the version of photos taken of Mallory Beach’s body that appeared in Ward’s video.
Other accusations circulating about the investigators hired by Parker’s includes one involving Stephen Smith, the teenager killed in 2015.
The Smith case has remained open and unsolved. After Paul was murdered in June 2021 alongside his mother, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division took over Smith’s case from the South Carolina Highway Patrol because of alleged connections to the Murdaugh family.
Prior to the murders, Smith’s mother says she was visited by two private investigators who said they wanted to help her solve her son’s case but did not say who hired them.
They asked her for her son’s iPad, she said, and they left with it.
According to sources, a search warrant for that iPad was served on at least one of the investigators after the murders but law enforcement was told that it had been destroyed.
If this is the case, this could end up being considered a criminal act, such as obstruction of justice.
Any connection between the investigators and Parker or his attorneys has not been established, but both have been subpoenaed by Tinsley.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Liz Farrell is the new executive editor at FITSNews. She was named 2018’s top columnist in the state by South Carolina Press Association and is back after taking a nearly two-year break from corporate journalism to reclaim her soul. Email her at [email protected] or tweet her @ElizFarrell.
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