Ethics Commission: City officials who took $7,200 illegally must pay $200 | News
BISHOPVILLE, SC (WIS)- South Carolina Ethics investigators have closed the case that led to 25 ethics violations against five Bishopville council members and the city administrator. Ethics charged the six last year after someone reported $7,200 in illegal payments and the use of the town's credit card for a $668 dinner.
In 2011, we started investigating a tip that members of Bishopville's city council cashed checks they shouldn't have received and failed to report conflicts of interest to the taxpayers. Investigators validated the tips after WIS aired a series of reports into the spending.
Bishopville Mayor Alexander Boyd, council members: Willie Mae Muldrow, Mike Morrow, Ennis Bryant and councilman Ken Currie each accepted $7200 in illegal stipends between July 2007 and June 2011, the ethics filing shows.
In orders handed down in March, each admitted to violating state ethics laws in using their office for financial gain and failing to excuse themselves from a vote on repaying the $7,200 during an Aug. 14, 2012 council meeting.
Ethics filings also show each failed to report the income on their statements of economic interest forms, which allows the public to see exactly who's paying and what's being paid to public officials.
The State Ethics Commission issued written warnings to each official through consent orders issued between February and March of this year. Each official also paid the following fines, also called an "administrative fee":
Alexander Boyd: $200
Ennis Bryant: $200
Gregg McCutchen (city administrator): $150
Kenneth Currie: $100
Willie Mae Muldrow: $200
Mike Morrow: $200
Ethics Commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood told WIS the commission does not have the power to order the council members who took the $7,200 in illegal payments to return the money. As far as charging the members for the original decision to pay the illegal stipends, Hazelwood told WIS the decision fell outside the commission's four-year statute of limitations and the commission could not investigate that.
DOING BUSINESS FOR PERSONAL GAIN
Ethics investigators had to open a completely separate investigation into Councilman Mike Morrow after learning Morrow's gas station was selling fuel and supplies to the city, but never reported it. Further investigation showed Morrow also voted on budgets that paid his business for those products, but never excused himself from those votes.
Morrow has a monopoly on diesel sales to the city and is the exclusive supplier for diesel to all city vehicles.
Ethics could only investigate the past four years of the contracts between Morrow and the city because of the state ethic's statute of limitations. Investigators found, the city paid Morrow $286,747 since 2008 and that Morrow never reported that income on his Statement of Economic Interest forms, which is also a violation of state law. Morrow has since amended his ethics forms to show how much he made off the city and he's now disclosed the business relationship he has with the city.
"Based on, I guess my ignorance of the law, I didn't feel like I needed to put that in. But, after having the talks with the investigators from the Ethics Commission and understanding better the law, I realized I do need to show that and I have and I will continue to do that," Morrow told WIS in January.
Ethics issued Morrow a written reprimand and fined him $200 and closed the case in February.
Bishopville City Councilman Craig Nesbit delivered a warning to council during the August 14, 2012 meeting, minutes after a vote that got several council members in ethics trouble.
"You should have recused yourself," Nesbit said to his fellow council members.
Between 2007 and 2011, the city cut the group monthly stipends, which is illegal under state law. Ethics records show, none of the members reported the money on their ethics reports.
Nesbit made a motion to order the mayor and four other council members to repay $7,200 in cash. He wanted them to pay the money back, and asked for a vote.
Councilmen Mike Morrow and Dr. Ken Currie did not vote that night, but ethics charged them with not telling the public about their conflicts, which is required under the state's ethics law.
Mayor Alexander Boyd, Mayor Pro Tem Ennis Bryant, and Councilwoman Willie Mae Muldrow all voted no to stopping the payments. Ethics charged them for voting with a conflict involved and failing to tell the public about it.
"This is more or less how it's always been done," said Nesbit. "They just do whatever they want to do, however they want to do it."
Nesbit was not charged because he never took the stipend payments. He started digging into the city's finance records and found the payments that totaled $7,200 each.
"So, if someone wants to file an ethics complaint against you guys, it's all on the record," said Nesbit during the August 2012 meeting. Ethics records show, the commission took the case up without a formal complaint being filed. Ethics likely saw the WIS reports and initiated an investigation from that, according to councilman Nesbit.
"Yeah, I did receive the per diem," said Mayor Boyd. "I guess that we shouldn't have voted on this matter."
"For them to just be cocky, more or less to say, 'We'll do whatever we want to do,' I think they deserve whatever the Ethics Commission puts on them," said Nesbit.
Ethics investigators also charged Mayor Boyd with taking his family out to dinner in Hilton Head during a conference in 2011. The meal also involved city administrator Gregg McCutchen, Councilwoman Muldrow and Councilman Bryant. Ethics records show McCutchen's portion of the $668.78 meal also paid for his wife and seven family members.
Records show Boyd's taxpayer-funded credit card was charged $668.78 for food, kids' meals, and alcohol.
Ethics records show Boyd repaid $535 of the $668.78 and McCutcheon repaid $133.78 just a week after the Ethics Commission opened its investigation.
In January, we went to Boyd's home to ask him about the ethics charges. He did not answer the door, and further efforts to contact the mayor were unsuccessful.
None of the other officials involved returned calls to WIS after contacting them by phone and making in-person visits to each council member's home.
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