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Bailey: Judge Dawson should walk away from secret $216,000 county deal

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Elliott Summey, then chairman of the Charleston County Council, presents a parting gift to county attorney Joe Dawson at the Dec. 17 council meeting. Screen shot

It was their last Charleston County Council meeting, and Elliott Summey and Joe Dawson (both without masks) gave each other a big man hug. Summey, who was stepping down as chairman, handed Dawson a tiny box with a big blue bow as “a small token of our appreciation’’ for his two decades as the county’s attorney.

“We’re going to miss you,’’ Summey said before giving Dawson another big hug. The council gave them both a standing ovation.

It was a warm and fuzzy December night in the chambers, one filled with talk of love and tears and honor as Summey, Dawson and Councilman Vic Rawl said their goodbyes.

Dawson, confirmed a day earlier for a lifetime job as a federal judge in the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency, didn’t open his little carefully wrapped token, and why should he? He had already gotten his big present 10 days earlier — but it was a secret, at least to us chumps who pay the bills.

County government is a place of the backroom deal, and the cost is more than the millions of taxpayer dollars squandered.

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It is also the corrosive effect it has on the public trust, undermining the very legitimacy of government itself. Our county government, sadly, could launch a thousand columns.

The Post and Courier’s David Slade unearthed the latest installment of “As the County Turns,” reporting last Sunday that the North Charleston cabal was gifting Dawson a $216,000 payday on the way out the door and a taxpayer-funded lottery ticket that could be worth even more one day if it scores big in litigation against opioid makers.

What we have learned, repeatedly, is that county government works all too well for insiders like Summey and Dawson — or Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, as Summey called the two of them that night.

Last year, Summey leveraged his family name and council chairmanship to land a plum $290,000-a-year job running the airport. Dawson saw his pay explode to $432,000 as a county attorney. Charleston’s city attorney makes $170,600.

And on and on it goes. The county paid former administrator Jennifer Miller $221,649 last year in exchange for an agreement not to sue after she left — whether she was pushed or jumped was never clear. North Charleston City Councilman Jerome Heyward got as much as $12,000 a month for who knows what?

What we know is bad. What we don’t know is even scarier. Transparency is not part of the DNA of this bunch.

“You can’t tell all of our secrets,’’ Summey joked with Rawl as he said goodbye to his council colleagues. The joke has always been at our expense.

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Dawson’s role at the county has grown over the years, and he was deeply enmeshed in almost everything.

County Council would have been better off it had listened to his advice on the Naval Hospital money pit. He helped fix the mess at the recycling center. He has been a confidant to many.

But as the county’s attorney, he has also been an intimate part of this culture of backroom dealing. That includes his own lucrative golden parachute. You didn’t know about it because they didn’t want you to know about it.

“Mr. Dawson agrees that neither he, nor anyone acting on his behalf, will disclose the terms of this agreement to any person or entity except as may be required by law,’’ says the document Dawson signed Dec. 7. The county administrator signed it, too, but Summey, Pryor & Co.’s fingerprints are all over it.

As a federal judge, Dawson’s salary will be cut in half. So the county deal makes him whole for 2021 by giving him $216,000 (he’s already been paid) for sharing his “institutional knowledge and insight’’ for the next year.

My favorite touch: The county also agreed to pay Dawson 1.5% of any settlement in litigation with Purdue Pharma LP for the sale of opioids. That was never in his previous county contracts.

Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, which advocates for judicial reform, and University of Pittsburgh law Professor Arthur Hellman said they have never seen an arrangement like this for a federal judge. Both said it was a bad idea.

“It is clearly improper,” said Hellman, who specializes in federal judicial ethics. “Judges aren’t supposed to have second jobs.”

Judge Dawson has a big new day job.

His goodbye to his county pals of 20 years was brief but elegant: “I always tried to do in my heart what I thought to be the right thing. I believe my mother taught me that.”

Listen to your mom, judge. Do the right thing, and walk away from this secret, shameless deal. This is no way to start a distinguished career on the bench.

Steve Bailey can be reached at Follow on Twitter @sjbailey1060.

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