Charleston County Council did talk about that $216,000 contract for former attorney Joe Dawson … just not in an open meeting.
Council members never took a recorded vote on it — but they all knew about it. Well, except for Henry Darby.
And none of them objected, until a bunch of other people did.
On Wednesday, County Council had a very public meltdown over this once-secret contract.
The deal was simple: Dawson — South Carolina’s newest federal judge — was paid six figures and promised a cut of legal fees in an ongoing lawsuit in return for a year of access to the institutional knowledge he accumulated in two decades as the county’s legal counsel.
Privately, some council members have called it a bargain; others say he should’ve done it for free.
Since The Post and Courier’s David Slade first reported on the agreement earlier this month, council members have been bombarded with angry calls, Councilman Kylon Middleton has pushed for an audit, and a judicial watchdog group has filed an ethics complaint against Dawson.
But council remained mostly quiet … until Chairman Teddie Pryor revealed the contract was drafted by, well, Dawson.
The next 20 minutes went down like the airplane scene in “Almost Famous.” Council members went off — they lamented their colleagues’ lack of transparency, bemoaned back-room deals and hollered about hypocrisy.
It wasn’t their finest hour. And since Ringling Bros. hasn't been around lately, it was kind of jarring to see a circus in North Charleston.
Councilman Dickie Schweers criticized council’s longstanding propensity to overpay Dawson, said he’d never heard about any lawsuit fees. Darby called the deal remuneration for Dawson’s loyalty that he never would’ve agreed to. Middleton asked that council review all county contracts going back two years.
And Councilwoman Anna Johnson called baloney on them all.
“Everybody that’s on this council, except for Mr. Darby, was there when we discussed the salary for Mr. Dawson and also” the legal fees, Johnson said.
She’s talking about an early December executive session where all this went down. And several people who were in that room say Johnson is absolutely right.
Council members had retreated behind closed doors to discuss potential replacements for Dawson (which, spoiler alert, will be the next big county controversy). Darby had left early for his now-famous second job at Walmart, but everyone else was there — including incoming council members Middleton and Rob Wehrman.
The talk eventually turned to the need for continued guidance from Dawson. Their new counsel would be lost without his help because the attorney’s office had been gutted.
Dawson was taking one attorney and the office manager as his judicial staff. Another county attorney had left for a job at the airport.
Some council members had suggested Dawson write status memos on all outstanding business, but that was deemed impossible. They decided council needed a contract that guaranteed access to Dawson.
In some accounts, Dawson was asked to write a proposed agreement, assuming he would best know what was permissible for a judge to do. Some say dollar amounts were discussed, others have no recollection of specifics beyond a reference to “half a year’s salary.” Dawson made north of $400K.
Regardless, the county administrator could sign contracts without a council vote for up to $250,000, and he was asked to make the deal.
And then, several people say, then-Chairman Elliott Summey went around the room and asked everyone, individually, “Are you OK with this?”
No one objected.
Darby says this was a parting gift, and others agree that may have been part of it ... for some. But others, notably Councilwoman Jenny Costa Honeycutt (an attorney herself), were seriously worried about county business going off the rails with no continuity in the legal department.
“To me, it would have been a disservice to let that institutional knowledge walk out the door,” Honeycutt says. “This was not some backroom deal, or a favor for someone. I would not have supported a parachute.”
She’s right; that’s a legitimate concern. Had council been open about that problem from the start, this wouldn’t have become a thing.
It remains to be seen whether Dawson faces any repercussions, and if council will own up to ignoring the spirit of the open-meetings law. People are mostly mad because, as usual, County Council was focused on the outcome and ignored the optics.
At Wednesday’s meeting, council members talked boldly about “transparency,” while others pointed out they can’t have it both ways — transparent about some things, totally opaque on others. Good point.
If this had been handled in the spirit of openness by which government should operate, the Dawson deal likely would’ve passed with little grousing.
Instead, they hoisted the big top.