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Editorial: Charleston County's outrageous parting gift to its well-paid attorney

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Joe Dawson (copy)

Joe Dawson. File/Provided

Joe Dawson voluntarily resigned as Charleston County attorney to become a federal judge — a coveted position that requires him to stop practicing law. Still, the county agreed to pay him $216,000 this year — either to provide “insight,” as a contract he signed says, or as a going-away present, as the chairman of the County Council says — and he may get another huge bonus down the road if the county wins a lawsuit that he, as a county employee, helped file.

We’re trying to think of a more irresponsible abuse of taxpayer money by the county — several candidates are in the running, but we’re not sure we can find one that beats this for sheer outrage.

The news is certainly problematic and embarrassing for Mr. Dawson, who was sworn in as a U.S. District Court judge in December, since it creates the appearance that he agreed to continue to advise the county even though as a federal judge, he may not practice law or provide legal services.

But it should be even more embarrassing and problematic for the Charleston County Council members who doled out such a generous sum and can’t even provide a consistent story as to why (or when or whether) they voted to authorize it. At least with former Charleston County Administrator Jennifer Miller, who received a $221,649 severance payment last year (which also wasn’t fully or credibly explained by county officials), there was a clear reason for the council-

approved buyout: It prevented her from suing the county.

Mr. Dawson’s departure in December was altogether different; he left amicably after former County Councilman and current U.S. Sen. Tim Scott nominated him to the federal bench during the GOP’s waning frenzy of court appointments. Those overseeing the ethical conduct of federal judges should seek an explanation from Mr. Dawson about how providing “his institutional and historical knowledge and insight” does not violate the judicial code of conduct. And if the payment was simply a very generous parting gift, as some council members claim, Mr. Dawson needs to explain why he hasn’t reported it on his federal disclosure reports.

As legal ethics expert and University of Pittsburgh law Professor Arthur D. Hellman told reporter David Slade, “It looks like he is providing something very similar to legal services and being compensated for that work,” but “upon taking the oath, a judge is to serve the law and the law alone.”

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There’s little to nothing we can do about that now, but county voters (and taxpayers) can, should and must demand more accountability and responsibility from County Council, which has established a disturbing pattern of squandering our taxpayer dollars. If it isn’t squandering money in this case, then what else could it be?

Local governments often pay employees to go away, as Charleston County did suddenly with Ms. Miller last year, often through agreements that abuse the public trust by including gag clauses that prevent either side from discussing the reason for the departure. As we said last year, letting the public know why officials were let go is far more important than fending off a legitimate legal action.

But we cannot think of any circumstances under which it would be appropriate to give a parting gift to an employee who is leaving for a better job — as Council Chairman Teddie Pryor claims was the case with Mr. Dawson. If the county was actually paying him for services he might render in the coming year, then in addition to raising serious ethical questions, it also strikes us as excessive to give him a half-year’s salary — particularly without explaining to the public what sort of loose ends he left hanging that could be worth more than $200,000 in taxpayer funds.

And all of that is without considering a particularly egregious provision that promises to pay Mr. Dawson 1.5% of any settlement the county might eventually receive as a plaintiff in national litigation over opioid pharmaceuticals. That’s a contingency fee, something paid to attorneys who take your case for free; Mr. Dawson was a paid county employee whose $432,000 salary was among the highest of any governmental employee in the state. It would have been a gross abuse of taxpayer money to give him a contingency fee even if he were still on the county payroll, presumably continuing to work on the case. Such a payment after his departure is beyond the pale.

Even more disturbingly, it’s unclear how council authorized the buyout. Doesn’t County Council have to vote in open session to approve contracts and purchases above a certain amount? How many more six-figure county contracts are out there that never saw the light of day?

County Council is expected to hire a new attorney soon. Council members must ensure that their first task is cleaning up the mess his or her predecessor left behind.

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