Charleston County is investigating a judge’s spending habits after The Post and Courier questioned tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of trips he took to far-flung locales on the public’s dime.
Master-in-Equity Mikell Scarborough is the county's second-highest paid employee, with a salary that hovers above $191,000. Yet he turned to taxpayers to cover the cost of first-class flights and extra nights of lodging he booked at beach and mountain resorts for conference trips to choice vacation spots, the newspaper's review of records found.
He could have stuck to far less costly in-state offerings to meet annual education requirements for his job, a special judicial position primarily tasked with handling hundreds of foreclosures, land disputes and other civil matters each year.
Instead, Scarborough crisscrossed the country, sparing few luxuries along the way.
His travel included: A hotel and spa along the sun-dappled Honolulu coast; shows at the world-renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival; and lodging in the mountains of Wyoming and Montana, prized destinations known for the area’s cluster of national parks.
Scarborough, who has been on the bench for 17 years, insists the trips carried a public benefit: They allowed him to attend seminars hosted by the National Judicial College, which has a decades-long mission to help educate the country’s judges.
But after The Post and Courier inquired about Scarborough’s spending, he reimbursed the county for his first-class plane tickets. The county also suspended his spending card and launched an internal review, county spokesman Shawn Smetana said.
In nearly every instance, Scarborough's trips came with extra costs or perks, not directly tied to the goal of judicial education.
Though a 2017 legal course he attended in Seattle ran four days, Scarborough charged taxpayers for nine nights at Hotel Sorrento, steps from Pike Place Market and the city's waterfront. The public bill for his travel: $4,991.
He treated himself to another extended stay at a Honolulu resort along idyllic Waikiki Beach in 2016. That trip cost taxpayers $5,318.
In 2018, Scarborough journeyed to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he toured the Grand Teton mountain range and stayed at a ranch atop a wildlife sanctuary. The sojourn cost taxpayers more than $1,400 to fly him first class. He spent thousands more on his course tuition, a rental car, food and lodging that included two extra nights.
Upcharging taxpayers for first-class flights or extra nights of lodging likely falls within a legal gray area, said Lynn Teague of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina. The state's ethics laws don't clearly cover such spending issues, she lamented.
But she described those practices as a "clear abuse of taxpayer funds."
“That’s absolutely over the top,” she said. “That should never happen."
“Most of the people who pay their tax dollars to subsidize this can’t afford to travel first class,” she added. “There’s no reason a master-in-equity should be able to.”
Scarborough wrote the county a check for $291.35 on Feb. 25, the day after The Post and Courier first contacted his office. The newspaper had requested his airline receipts from the county the week before.
Scarborough said the reimbursement he paid reflects the difference in cost between his 2018 first-class tickets and what he would have paid if he flew coach.
He defended his use of taxpayer money, though his spending habits were also called into question in a recent county audit. A procurement official flagged more than $1,000 in furniture and office expenses that didn't meet spending guidelines. Scarborough denied wrongdoing in those instances, too.
Scarborough said he personally covered his daughter’s expenses when she joined him on the Hawaii trip. He did the same when his wife traveled with him to a conference in Big Sky, Mont., last year, he said.
He stressed that he’s an active participant in the legal seminars and has been asked to lead some of the discussions. Learning how judges operate their courts in other states has helped broaden his legal education, Scarborough said.
“I have found it both helpful and refreshing,” he said.
'A Novel Approach'
Scarborough first took the bench in 2003. He was selected by the Charleston County legislative delegation, beating out four other lawyers vying for the public position that carries a six-year term.
A real estate attorney, Scarborough had served for years on the Charleston County Planning Board, including a stint as chairman. He also handled some legal work directly for the county and its election commission.
“He was eminently qualified for the position,” said former Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican who was then-chairman of the county legislative delegation. “He was well respected by the leadership in Charleston. I’m glad that I helped him get on the bench.”
Scarborough is one of South Carolina’s 22 masters-in-equity. They are appointed in large counties and primarily preside over mortgage foreclosures, property disputes and debt collections.
Typically, they handle civil cases and do not preside with juries. However, to help clear circuit court dockets, the Supreme Court grants special authority to Scarborough and other masters to handle some non-jury criminal matters. Scarborough’s office also oversees Charleston’s auctions of property sold at foreclosure.
Master candidates and incumbents are subject every six years to screenings by the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, a panel that also evaluates other state judges. County delegations select top candidates and forward the names to the governor, who signs off on all appointments.
To qualify for the position, candidates must have held a law license for at least eight years. Once they take the bench, like other judges, they must complete 15 hours of continued legal education each year.
Many elect to fulfill their requirements through annual sessions put on by legal groups in the state. The S.C. Bar Association hosts mandatory sessions for masters each October, in addition to the group’s annual convention that includes more than 20 seminars. The Judicial Department also hosts an annual seminar for its members.
Most of these events are held in the capital city of Columbia, a two-hour drive from Scarborough's home. His trips out-of-state included more exotic fare.
During a trip to Oregon in 2014, Scarborough’s seminar included a visit to that state’s historic Shakespeare Festival. Attendees were treated to viewings of “Richard III,” “The Comedy of Errors” and “The Tempest.” They then discussed the “ethical dilemmas posed within the plays as the dilemmas relate to the judiciary,” a course description said. The title of the class: “Ethical Issues in the Law, A Novel Approach.”
The trip included his stay at the Ashland Springs Hotel, a circa-1925 landmark that describes itself as "an oasis of gentility & elegance located in a quaint, charming town." The trip cost just over $4,000.
Scarborough said lessons on ethics are a mandatory part of his annual education requirements.
“I found this to be an interesting way to educate on this normally very dry topic,” he said.
Teague, with the League of Women Voters, said in-state training events — not unlike sessions held by other government associations — are aimed at limiting the costs of required education.
“If training is available in-state, that’s clearly what people should be doing,” she said. “There should be an overwhelming and compelling reason to do it outside the state.”
'A comfortable seat'
Scarborough's more recent trips came with other perks.
The judge signed up for a $1,748 course in Seattle in 2017. The course ran Monday through Thursday. But Scarborough charged taxpayers $2,645 for nine nights, including the weekends before and after the course. For his nonstop flights between South Carolina and Washington state, he also charged taxpayers $107 to upgrade to seats with extra legroom.
Scarborough said he was recovering at the time from an injury. He also pointed to his height and weight — 6-feet, 1-inch tall and 260 pounds.
“As I was going to be in my seat for five hours and had recently suffered a hurt knee, I chose to get a comfortable seat,” he said.
He booked his flights with Alaska Air, which he said “only flew on certain days,” causing him to stay extra nights in Seattle. The flights totaled $597.
For the following year’s trip to Wyoming, he flew first class.
He stayed at Spring Creek Ranch, located on a wildlife sanctuary perched atop Jackson with “spectacular views of the Teton Mountain Range.” His legal course held its first session on a Monday. He checked in the Saturday prior, and checked out a week later — two days after his course ended on Thursday.
Scarborough said he booked flights for each Saturday because "I believe those days were cheaper to fly."
He said he visited the Tetons, but paid for his entry pass out of his own pocket.
Seven-day passes range between $20 to $35, according to the park's website. The public bill for for the Wyoming trip totaled a little under $5,600.
Scarborough returned to the area for another seminar last year. This time, he stayed in Big Sky, Mont., and brought his wife. He charged taxpayers $642 to rent an SUV.
The couple drove the rental more than 1,300 miles in one week, receipts show — that's roughly the equivalent of a trip from Charleston to Des Moines, Iowa.
Scarborough said his wife used the car while he was in class for four days to drive to Yellowstone National Park, about 50 miles away. Their resort was also about 60 miles from the Montana airport.
Scarborough said he personally covered the car’s gas. He also paid for his and his wife’s flights.
Like other masters-in-equity, Scarborough's work doesn't usually attract a lot of public attention unless the economy sours and foreclosures rise.
Scarborough oversees six employees in an office with an annual budget of about $700,000. Most of that money goes toward salaries, leaving about $30,000 in the judge's discretionary spending accounts. He said his annual travel budget doesn’t exceed $7,000.
Scarborough’s financials are compiled in Charleston County’s yearly audits, or comprehensive annual financial reports. Similar reports are required in every county.
But Teague said those reports don’t go far enough. Because masters-in-equity handle mounds of public money — the office brought in about $400,000 in revenue last year — there ought to be a requirement for more thorough examinations of their accounts and backup documentation, she said.
“The county should not just be reporting what happens, but examining it forensically,” Teague said.
In 2018, Charleston County did review Scarborough’s spending records more thoroughly. A procurement official flagged nearly $700 in office purchases over a year for coffee, creamer, sugar, cutlery, plates and cups. The audit also flagged a $163 microwave and a $326 ivory buffet table.
The purchases fell outside of county spending card guidelines mandating that purchases be for legitimate county business or travel, the audit said.
In a written response to the county’s procurement director, Scarborough described the items as innocent purchases intended to allow his employees to eat lunch at the office. He said he uses the buffet table as a stand for the microwave and for other storage.
“We do not overspend and try to be cognizant of every dollar spent,” he wrote.