Member advised city on public response

The city of Charleston has refused to release documents that could shed light on how large a role city officials played in the writing of a report by experts hired to review the fire department's operations following the deadly Sofa Super Store fire.

The city says it withheld e-mails and drafts of the panel's report on improving the fire department because they constitute attorney work products and are protected by attorney-client privilege. But one city council member and the state press association's attorney say the city's position is a stretch.

The city did, however, provide The Post and Courier with dozens of e-mails and correspondence that suggest a close relationship between the city and at least one member of the panel that's been billed as independent and whose work was promoted as transparent.

The documents include e-mails in which a panel member advised the city on how to respond to state workplace safety violations and encouraged the city to hand-pick firefighters to speak publicly about their experiences at the sofa store in an effort to counter criticism of the department's handling of the blaze.

On Sept. 21, one day after the state cited and fined the city for the fire department's handling of the sofa store fire, panel member Pete Piringer e-mailed city public information officer Barbara Vaughn, suggesting that the city might be better off fighting the fines rather than the alleged violations.

"I believe we will probably find out that the other investigative reports will probably be much of the same ... as far as the findings," he said.

Piringer also wrote that fighting the violations could have unintended consequences: "It may seem to some that if you fight the charges — the nine died in vain. The CFD organization may not view the 'fight' as healthy either — it seems like most are eager for change ... and obviously something went wrong on June 18."

In a Sept. 5 e-mail to Vaughn, Piringer suggested that the city allow a "select few" city firefighters to talk about their actions on the night of the fire. "To date, most of the printed or published stories have been somewhat one-sided, often with experts weighing in. ... By telling their story in their own words they can even the playing field and may even change the way people perceive the events that occurred. Let's get some info out. The way we want to."

About a week later, the city invited reporters to hear firsthand accounts from two firefighters who were at the sofa store on June 18.

Piringer, who works full-time as public information director for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service in Maryland, said he offered the city advice based on his extensive experience dealing with the media. The Charleston Fire Department lacked a public information officer at the time, and he was trying to help fill that role for the city, he said.

None of that compromises his role or work on the independent panel, Piringer said. "I like to think I am a professional."

Piringer said he is in somewhat of a unique position on the panel because he is not being paid by the city as a consultant. His agency in Maryland is paying his salary while Piringer donates his services to the Charleston effort. The city of Charleston reimburses some of his travel expenses.

City Attorney Susan Herdina said the city did not ask for Piringer's advice on those issues and that his suggestions did not fall within the panel's responsibilities. "That was unsolicited advice," she said. "This was not one of their tasks, so to speak."

City Councilman Henry Fishburne said he was "really turned off" to learn such communications were taking place while the panel was supposed to be working autonomously.

Fishburne, a lawyer, also doesn't believe that the city has legal grounds to withhold correspondence unless the documents touch on a pending criminal inquiry. "How they can claim attorney-client privilege? I just don't see it," he said. "I don't see that staff attorneys or the mayor's office should have even been looking at that report before it came out. It's wrong. It taints the report."

Mayor Joe Riley and other city officials were shown drafts of the panel's report and were allowed to suggest changes before its public release on Oct. 17. Some have said the city's involvement in crafting the report ran counter to the city's earlier pledges that the consultants would operate autonomously.

Riley and other city officials characterized the city's input as an attempt to ensure that the report was factually and legally accurate.

Gordon Routley, who heads the six-member panel, has said city officials were involved in "fine-tuning" the final report but that review team members were completely comfortable with the changes.

In an effort to detail the extent of the city's involvement with the report, the newspaper filed a request under the state Freedom of Information Act seeking copies of all e-mails and other correspondence between city officials and the consultants. The documents and the city's response were provided to the newspaper late Tuesday. Herdina said the city provided the newspaper with the vast majority of documents but that some correspondence was withheld because it touches on issues related to ongoing litigation stemming from the sofa store fire.

She cited the city's appeal of state workplace safety violations and a lawsuit brought by the family of one of the nine firefighters who died in the blaze. The city has not been named in that lawsuit but Riley and Fire Chief Rusty Thomas have been subpoenaed.

Herdina said legal issues tied to those cases overlap with some of the panel's work, and the city was concerned about releasing correspondence as those cases move forward. "We are looking out for the city's interest."

South Carolina Press Association attorney Jay Bender said the city's correspondence with a consultant hired to perform a service is not confidential. "I don't see how they could make that claim," he said. "It doesn't sound to me like that's attorney-client correspondence."

Bender said it sounds as though the city is uncomfortable with what some of the correspondence may show and looked for a way to protect it. "The city is saying we don't like how this looks in terms of our litigation position and so they are pushing it under the attorney-client privilege after the fact."