James Island mayor fined $1,000 in Ethics Commission probe

The South Carolina Ethics Commission fined James Island Mayor Bill Woolsey for unintentionally violating the state Ethics Reform Act with an election posting on his personal blog linked to the town’s website.

BY PRENTISS FINDLAY

pfindlay@postandcourier.com

The State Ethics Commission has fined James Island Mayor Bill Woolsey $1,000 after finding that he unintentionally violated a provision of the Ethics Reform Act that prohibits use of public funds, property or time to influence the outcome of an election.

The Ethics Commission order dated Sept. 8 required the mayor to pay the fine and a $250 administrative fee within 30 days of receipt of the order. He also received a written warning.

At issue was a link between Woolsey’s personal “Mayor’s Corner” blog and the town’s website. Woolsey created the link as the town website administrator, the Ethics Commission said.

The Ethics Commission said in a “consent order” agreement with Woolsey that its investigation revealed several posts on Mayor’s Corner intended to influence the outcome of the Nov. 4 election for James Island Public Service District Commission.

“I didn’t think that having a link to my personal blog, Mayor’s Corner, on the town’s website was an inappropriate use of public property, especially since it was not prominently displayed on the front page but was next to my photo, personal phone number and email,” Woolsey said in an emailed statement.

“However, I have consented to the South Carolina Ethics Commission’s view that it was. I believe that $1,000 was a bit steep for that single link, but clearly the S.C. Ethics Commission disagreed,” he said.

“I feel vindicated that they agreed that my use of my personal email and Mayor’s Corner to educate the voters of the town regarding the candidates in the 2014 James Island PSD election was an exercise of my First Amendment rights,” he said.

Trent Kernodle, who ran against Woolsey in the last mayor’s race, filed a complaint about Woolsey with the Ethics Commission that led to the investigation.

“It bothers me when people don’t play by the rules. That bothered me so badly that I felt like I needed to do this,” he said in an interview.

As part of his complaint, Kernodle alleged that Woolsey inappropriately used his town email for election-related activity, but the commission concluded there was no evidence that happened.

The Ethics Commission investigation found that Mayor’s Corner on Oct. 29, 2014, had photos of favored JIPSD contenders, a caption with the word ‘vote,’ and a statement that the pictured candidates were committed to working with the town.

“The same post listed the names of other non-favored JIPSD candidates with a line through their names and a statement that these candidates cannot be expected to cooperate with the town, In addition, (Woolsey) posted results from a questionnaire that he sent to each candidate with a letter grade based on his evaluation of their responses,” the investigation found.

The content of the Mayor’s Corner blog is constitutionally protected free speech but it should not have been connected to the town website, the Commission said.

“(Woolsey) now recognizes that, while there was nothing improper in itself about the political content placed on Mayor’s Corner, it was a serious error in judgment to have caused this content to be linked to a public website,” the commission said.

Woolsey fully cooperated with the investigation and immediately took responsibility for his actions. He also quickly acted to remove the offending link to the town website, the Commission said.