Charleston County Probate Judge Irvin Condon suspended Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg from managing an elderly woman's finances after finding Tecklenburg made loans to himself from her funds without getting prior approval from the court.
The order, filed May 1, told Tecklenburg to release all documentation of the three loans taken, which totaled $80,000 over five years. A hearing will be held June 15 in Probate Court.
"The transactions show apparent self-dealing," Condon wrote. "The transactions show that John Tecklenburg made unsecured loans to himself and his family members' businesses."
In legal terms, self-dealing is when a trustee takes advantage of his position for his own personal gain.
In a written statement on his Facebook page Thursday, Tecklenburg explained the details of each loan, listing $20,000 in 2011 and $35,000 in 2014 for his wife Sandy Tecklenburg's gift shop, Meeting Street Gallery; and one personal loan in the amount of $25,000 in 2016.
In a phone interview Thursday, Tecklenburg said the first two loans were to support his wife's retail operation, which has since been sold.
The personal loan in February 2016 helped cover living expenses as he transitioned to his new job as the mayor, with a salary of $180,000. He had been a real estate agent but wasn't earning much in 2015 because he spent most of the year campaigning, he said.
The mayor said each loan has been repaid in full and on schedule with interest, all of which was reported to the court in annual reports, as required.
A year ago, the court notified him that state law requires such loans to be cleared first by the probate court. The law says "any transaction which is affected by a conflict of interest is void unless the transaction is approved by the court after notice to interested persons and others as directed by the court."
Tecklenburg said he didn't realize he had violated any rules.
"I promptly repaid the single outstanding loan in full and provided the Court with all the information requested," Tecklenburg said in the Facebook statement. "It was my understanding at the time ... that these corrective steps had fully addressed the court's concerns."
In December 2008, years before he ran for mayor, Tecklenburg was appointed conservator of Johnnie Wineglass' finances after she had fallen victim to a series of scams.
Wineglass, 92, is a former neighbor of the Tecklenburgs' when the family lived on Moultrie Street near Hampton Park. They grew very close, as if "she was a member of the family," Tecklenburg said.
After they moved elsewhere, he regularly called and paid her visits every few weeks, he said.
It was on one of those visits that he realized Wineglass' mind was slipping, showing early signs of what would soon develop into Alzheimer's disease. Her bills were piling up on the dining room table, her phone had been disconnected and she had taken out multiple mortgages on the house to pay into a fake sweepstakes scheme run by a Jamaican gang, he said.
Tecklenburg already helped his grandmother balance her checkbook and pay bills so he offered to help Wineglass do the same.
"I literally had a part-time job for the first year or two just sorting it all out," he said.
Once the house was sold and her debt paid off, she moved into a fulltime care facility. The money she had left was about $50,000.
When he formally took control of her finances, he noticed how quickly it was dwindling due to her medical and nursing home expenses, he said.
"I realized it was just a matter of time, depending on how long she lived, that she could run out of money and could be forced leave a pretty decent, safe place for her to live," the mayor said in the phone interview. "That's when I started investing the funds, I felt very safely, because I was relying on myself. I had confidence ... I could always be able to pay them back."
Tecklenburg, a real estate agent by trade, didn't use a lawyer at any point to help with the transactions. He first purchased a property at a foreclosure sale with the fund for $25,000, which was resold and yielded a $3,000 profit for Wineglass.
With that sum and interest paid on the three loans, Tecklenburg grew Wineglass' fund by about $8,000, a third of its current value, he said.
He wasn't paid for helping and he said his family has never profited from the transactions.
"I could’ve borrowed the money somewhere else and I believed I was doing something good. And I was," he said. "I thought it was a safe and reasonable way to add some income to Ms. Johnnie's account."
Anyone can be appointed a conservator if they agree to "act as a prudent investor," according to state law, and to protect the person's best financial interests. Professional conservators are typically paid through the fund they're appointed to oversee, which can become costly over time.
It's unclear why the court didn't alert Tecklenburg to the violation when he borrowed from the fund initially, or why he was suspended last week a year after the court raised the issue. State law prohibits judges from commenting on pending cases.
Condon, a Republican, is seeking re-election Nov. 6. Two Democrats, Kelsey Willey and Stephanie Ganaway-Pasley, are running to challenge him.
The mayor's son, Joseph Tecklenburg, is serving on Willey's campaign committee.
The mayor said he doesn't think the court's action was politically motivated.
Rhonda Geddings, Wineglass' goddaughter who lives in Mount Pleasant, said her godmother didn't have many relatives in the area when she began suffering from Alzheimer's about a decade ago. She said the mayor stepped in when nobody else was willing.
"A non-relative, who would bother? Not many people," she said. "If the mayor had not interceded, I don’t know what would’ve come of my godmother."
She said she wasn't informed about the series of loans he had taken out. And she was surprised when she heard about the recent court's decision to suspend him. But overall, she said she's grateful and still trusts the mayor.
She plans to tell Judge Condon the same, and to urge him to reinstate Tecklenburg.
"He paid the money back. It could’ve been poor judgment, but if anything, she gained money. And if she’s going to stay in that nice facility, she’s going to need all the money she can get," Geddings said.
Another goddaughter, Leila Potts Campbell, has sent a letter to the judge requesting that Tecklenburg continue serving as Wineglass' conservator.