MONCKS CORNER — As Berkeley County School Board deals with an FBI probe into its finances and turnover in its top positions, some are questioning the legal ties between the nonpartisan board and its county government counterpart.
The issue revolves around two Republican office-holders who represent the same district: County Councilman Josh Whitley, 33, and school board member Mac McQuillin, 34.
The Daniel Island lawyers have provided legal advice to the elected body on which the other serves, and that has sent up red flags to some.
“Our elected officials are directing taxpayer dollars into each other’s pockets in the form of legal fees paid,” Daniel Island resident Rindy Ryan, who ran unsuccessfully against McQuillin in 2014, told the board recently.
County Council and the school board are separate entities, and no law says an elected official of one may not work for the other.
But Angela Simmons, district employee and president of Berkeley County Progressive League, has addressed the board on several occasions to question the arrangement.
“While all of this may be perfectly legal, it gives the appearance of being perfectly unethical,” she said. “Legal is not always right.”
College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts said because so many local tax dollars flow to schools and to county government, officials would want to be careful about the perception of any conflict of interest.
“Certainly we are in an era of mistrust in government," he said, "(But) we want people to run for office who have experience and are plugged in to all kinds of careers. These elected positions are certainly not full-time jobs, and we can’t expect people to drop everything.”
Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, the Charleston law firm where McQuillin is a shareholder, encourages lawyers to serve their communities, said senior partner Jeremy Cook.
Whitley, a partner in Smyth Whitley, and Brandon Gaskins of Moore & Van Allen Law Firm, were hired as the Berkeley County School District's interim counsel in November. It was the first action of the newly elected board.
“A majority of the board voted to retain Mr. Gaskins and Mr. Whitley, both local lawyers who agreed to provide services at reduced rates,” McQuillin said. “I cast my individual vote to retain lawyers that I trust will advise the board with the district’s best interest in mind.”
Whitley noted he is a product of the Berkeley County schools.
“I am proud that a majority of the school board trusts me to advise a district where so many teachers and employees are a special part of my success,” he said.
In January, Whitley was among several County Council members to call for a referendum on Berkeley's form of government. McQuillin represented his firm at a January meeting to advise on a possible referendum.
“It is misleading and disrespectful to our council to suggest that Councilman Whitley chooses our lawyers,” Councilman Jack Schurlknight said. “A majority of County Council voted to hire Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd because that firm has been providing advice to the county for years, even before Mr. McQuillin was born.”