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Federal Judge Dawson, facing ethics complaint, agrees to Charleston County contract change

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Joseph Dawson III was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in December to be a federal judge in Greenville. Days before his Senate confirmation hearing, Dawson signed a document with Charleston County in which he agreed to provide insight and institutional knowledge for the next 12 months in exchange for $216,000. File/Provided

Federal Judge Joe Dawson faces an ongoing judicial ethics complaint over his exit contract with Charleston County — his former employer — and now he's agreed to amend that deal.

County Council discussed the potential changes behind closed doors during a May 6 meeting.

“Mr. Dawson’s attorney reached out to us about amendments to the contract," Council Chairman Teddie Pryor told The Post and Courier that night.

“Some changes could be made to the numbers, I would put it like that," he said.

The contract that prompted the ethics complaint was drawn up by Dawson himself in December, right before he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate for a seat on the U.S. District Court in Greenville, according to county officials.

With his departure, Dawson was paid a lump sum of $216,000 — half the total amount Charleston County paid Dawson in 2020 — and was promised a 1.5 percent share of any settlement Charleston County receives from national litigation over opioid pharmaceuticals. 

The $216,000 alone nearly equaled the annual pay of a federal judge, $218,600. But it wasn't the rich compensation so much as what the contract called for Dawson to provide in return that raised ethics concerns. 

Shortly after The Post and Courier reported on the previously undisclosed deal in February, the nonprofit advocacy group Fix the Court filed a formal judicial ethics complaint about the arrangement.

The arrangement, which Dawson subsequently asked the county to change, states that Dawson “agrees to provide the county his institutional and historical knowledge and insight on proceedings related to services performed or required to be performed, or non-legal advice on matters where he possesses pertinent knowledge for twelve months from the date of his separation.”

Under the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, federal judges are not allowed to practice law or provide legal services.

Pryor said the county hopes to clear up, in the contract, that Dawson would only be asked to share his institutional knowledge gathered over two decades as the county's top attorney.

“He cannot provide us with legal advice," Pryor said. "I want to be clear about that."

Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, said the attempt to revise the problematic contract seems like a positive development.

“Seemingly, Judge Dawson realizes he made a mistake and is trying to fix the mistake," Roth said Wednesday.

“Hopefully that $216,000 payment is reconstituted as a severance payment and it’s clarified that he’s not a consultant, and maybe the opioid lawsuit percentage gets another look," he said.

Dawson did not return a message left with his court clerk seeking comment May 5, and has not responded to previous, repeated attempts to reach him for comment.

He signed the revised contract on May 11.

County Councilman Herb Sass said it's important that the county's latest administrator, Bill Tuten, and the county's new lawyer, Natalie Ham, be able to tap into Dawson's historic knowledge of things that were done in the past.

"They need to be able to talk to Joe Dawson and find out why we did things the way we did," Sass said. “He was there 20-something years and he knew all the players."

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

David Slade is a senior Post and Courier reporter. His work has been honored nationally by Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scripps foundation and others. Reach him at 843-937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com

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