Lawsuit: Top defender violated free speech

Beattie Butler, a former Charleston County assistant public defender, alleges that his October firing stemmed from concerns he raised about possible ethics violations by 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson’s office.

Charleston County’s top public defender violated his former second-in-command’s right to free speech when he fired the man last year for his fixation on perceived misconduct by 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson and her office, court documents filed Monday in U.S. District Court alleged.

The civil suit, filed by Greenville attorney David Rothstein on behalf of plaintiff Beattie Butler listed Charleston County and Public Defender Ashley Pennington as defendants.

“Defendant Pennington unlawfully restrained (Butler) from speaking out, as a citizen, on matters of public concern and then unlawfully terminated his employment in retaliation for his speaking out,” the document stated. As a result, Butler has suffered violations to his right to free speech, lost wages, lost earning capacity, job search expenses, and mental and emotional injuries, it stated.

Butler accused Pennington of trying to muzzle complaints out of his office against Wilson. Pennington denies the allegations raised in the suit.

“Despite Mr. Butler’s false allegations otherwise, I have never indicated that he — or anyone else — should not file a grievance if he felt that was warranted. Rather, my concern was more as to his tendency to air his sensationalized complaints in the media or by email rather than to the appropriate governing body,” Pennington said. “His high-level position in my office made it appear that he was speaking on my behalf and that was disruptive to the efficiency of the office and our ability to meet our mission.”

The allegations came a week after Columbia attorney Desa Ballard filed an injunction request in Charleston County on behalf of S.C. Lawyers Weekly in an attempt to force Wilson to release records detailing disciplinary complaints made against her.

In a complaint filed roughly a year and a half ago with the state Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel, Ballard outlined a list of grievances against the pair, accusing Wilson of withholding key evidence from defense attorneys and Pennington of being a vocal supporter of the solicitor who went so far as to silence his staff’s criticisms — allegations Pennington and Wilson have both repeatedly denied.

In the suit, Butler outlines “a string of serious misconduct perpetrated against public defender clients in high profile criminal cases by attorneys from the Ninth Circuit Solicitor’s Office.”

Alleged infractions beginning in late 2007 included an assistant solicitor presenting a witness’ statement before a jury without mentioning that the witness had recanted the account. The following year a prosecutor attempted to introduce a footwear impression as evidence in another case, even though defense attorneys were told the impression didn’t match the defendant’s shoes and therefore wouldn’t be admitted, the documents stated.

The S.C. Commission on Lawyer Conduct found Butler’s allegations of unethical conduct “unconvincing” and dismissed them, Pennington said.

Butler spent 12 years as an assistant public defender in Charleston County, rising to the position of chief litigator before he was terminated. He is seeking a jury trial and an unspecified amount in damages.

He was undergoing cancer treatment when he was fired and contends in the suit that Pennington took advantage of his “weakened physical condition ... to inflict greater harm.”

Pennington denies that, saying he adjusted Butler’s workload and allowed him to work from home before he was eventually fired.

“I have lost confidence in your judgment as a leader due to your conduct, which constitutes personal, public attacks on Solicitor Wilson,” Pennington wrote in a termination letter drafted October 2014. “You have a right to your own political views but you do not have a right to drag this office into conformity with your personal agenda.”

The letter was made public through a request by The Post and Courier under the Freedom of Information Act.

As a result, the suit alleged, Butler’s “good name, reputation, honor and integrity were damaged” by the defendants, “thus affecting his liberty interest in his occupation, without affording him a hearing and the opportunity to clear his name.”

A date for trial has not yet been set.

Reach Christina Elmore at (843) 937-5908.