COLUMBIA — A lawsuit seeking to cancel a $1 million payout to an ousted Richland County administrator has led to the discovery of text messages showing the administrator and a county councilwoman privately communicating during settlement negotiations.
Richland County Council voted to fire administrator Gerald Seals last year, but they also approved a $1 million settlement that council members said was intended to protect the county from potential lawsuits.
Seals was fired after pushing a $144 million redevelopment project that included buying a vacant shopping mall with little public input.
Columbia area businessman William Coggins filed suit over the payment, arguing the 6-5 vote to approve it should be invalidated because Councilwoman Dalhi Myers was improperly communicating with Seals at the time.
In text messages obtained through discovery for the lawsuit, Seals and Myers appear to communicate about the settlement before and during a County Council executive session. Several comments are redacted.
On May 2, Myers told Seals, "Don't counter small or reasonable. Go big," and "Make sure you give descriptive info. So this ASAP while you're an employee before anything changes."
Then, during a May 14 executive session, Myers texted Seals, "DO NOT REVEAL YOU KNOW THIS... choose how much you’d take if you got your job back and IF you are willing to move slightly off 1.4."
Then during a recess came, "Force and up or down on your cash out."
When the council returned to another executive session, Myers texted Seals, "$985,000." He responded by asking, "You recommend?" She replied, "Yes. If you agree. Or counter with a million. No confidentiality agreement. Ok?"
She later advised him that a clause to bar future employment or counseling would be "coming out." That evening, Seals texted Myers, "Signed" and "Please make it known as a 1 million dollar settlement."
Seals, who was fired after less than two years on the job, and Myers, who was first elected in 2016, did not return calls Monday.
Several comments in the conversation were apparently redacted by Seals' attorney.
Coggins' attorneys argue that no legitimate reason was provided for the redactions, so they are continuing to seek an unredacted transcript of the conversation. During a deposition earlier this month, Seals testified he does not know what is in the redactions.
The attorneys also argued that Myers' communication with Seals during the settlement negotiations violated Richland County's ethics code and presented a conflict of interest that she failed to disclose.
According to the original complaint, Seals would have only been owed about $200,000 in salary, vacation pay and benefits if he had been fired without cause.