‘He wanted the report for malicious reasons’: SLED report details county extortion claim

‘A sad day for Horry County’: Council special meeting ends with no decisions made

A special meeting was called to discuss Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge’s employment. That meeting ended with no executive session and no decision was made during the 20 minute meeting.
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A special meeting was called to discuss Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge’s employment. That meeting ended with no executive session and no decision was made during the 20 minute meeting.

No charges will be filed against Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner and his associate Luke Barefoot regarding an alleged extortion attempt, according to a news release from 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division report released late Thursday night found no evidence of extortion during a dinner conversation that was recorded between Barefoot, Gardner and representatives from the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation, president Sandy Davis and director of investor relations Sherri Steele.

Gardner said he is not surprised by the result, he said from the beginning he did nothing wrong. He wants to talk with the rest of County Council before deciding how to proceed.

“What probably needs to happen is we need to get the report, talk to my council and see what’s next,” said Gardner, who had not yet seen the report Thursday night.

In a group text message obtained by The Sun News, Barefoot urged people “to call their county councilman to get rid of the two staffers that caused this big mess. … SLED SAID NO. ELDRIDGE & CARROTI (sic) GOTTA GO!”

The Investigation

According to SLED’s investigation, Davis said she never felt threatened by Barefoot or Gardner. The report said Davis, who recorded the meeting because she said the table wasn’t large enough to take notes, called MBREDC Chair Henry Wilson after the dinner and said she was happy with how it went.

Barefoot said to investigators the dinner ended with hugs and was a fun meeting.

According to the report, Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge, who initially asked SLED to investigate, texted Davis on Nov. 30 following the meeting. Davis told Eldridge the meeting went well.

Eldridge followed up by asking if a rumored negative article to be written about her was brought up. She said ‘”no,” and Eldridge asked if there was any mention of Donald Smith, a campaign consultant for Gardner. She said “yes,” and then Eldridge said Gardner and Barefoot were just trying to funnel money to Smith. He asked Davis to make a written statement, according to SLED.

Eldridge immediately asked for the recording, but Davis did not provide one to the county administrator. In the report, Davis said Eldridge and county attorney Arrigo Carotti were the only two who made her feel threatened in the ordeal.

“She felt he wanted the report for malicious reasons,” the report said.

When Eldridge spoke with investigators, he said Davis was concerned about the new chairman’s support of her organization. He said Davis told him Gardner and Barefoot asked for $40,000 for Smith, to be paid through the Beach Ball Classic, a high school basketball tournament organized by former Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes.

Smith is affiliated with the basketball tournament, according to Eldridge. The County Administrator also said to investigators the he heard Barefoot say in the recording that Smith controlled County Council members’ votes.

In Barefoot’s testimony, he said he suggested the MBRDEC hire Smith, but that’s all. In Gardner’s testimony, he did not remember a lot of the details from the lunch, admitting he wasn’t engaged in the conversation, but said it was a friendly meeting.

Before the extortion allegations were made public, Gardner said he met with Eldridge over lunch. They discussed that a lot of the people who voted for Gardner did not like Eldridge. Gardner said it was a good meeting but was surprised when Eldridge said he had a good relationship with other county staff members.

Eldridge told investigators Gardner did not say he was going to fire him.

Steele said after Eldridge asked for the recording, he started using the word “extortion” to describe what happened at the dinner.

“I just want it to be known the only time that I have felt bothered, harassed, or felt anxiety over any of this was from Chris,” Steele is directly quoted as saying.

On Dec. 19, Carotti, Eldridge, County Council Member Gary Loftus and former County Chairman Mark Lazarus gathered to listen to the recorded meeting, Davis said. They only heard part of the conversation.

“Davis said that Attorney Carotti and Councilman Loftus said they did not hear anything,” the report said. In addition, Lazarus said he did not hear anything either, but could see where someone might think there was extortion.

Eldridge said he thought there was something there and requested the tape. In a confidential memo that was leaked to the public, Carotti wrote about what he heard on the recording in a memo. He said he remembered hearing Barefoot say Smith can work in the shadows and paying him through the Beach Ball Classic could act as a political cover.

“President Davis believed the reason Administrator Eldridge wanted a copy was because he wanted to release the recording before County Chairman Gardner was sworn in as Horry County Chairman,” the report said.

FITSNews published the leaked memo detailing the alleged extortion attempt on the day Gardner was sworn in.

In the leaked memo, an email from Eldridge said what happened at the lunch could “not be swept under the rug.” MBREDC Chair Wilson said he thought Eldridge’s wording implied the organization was hiding something.

Before the memo was leaked, however, Carotti only emailed it to Eldridge and Lazarus. The two said they would forward it to council members. Carotti said he woke up the next morning to find it had been published online.

Carotti told investigators he wanted the narrative in his memo to be his statement.

The original allegations

It’s been two months since Eldridge asked SLED to investigate the claims. The law-enforcement division sent its findings to the solicitor’s office last week.

Eldridge asked for the report to be made after a memo from Carotti on the allegations was leaked just before Christmas to FITSNews, a Columbia-based politics and culture blog.

In the memo, Carotti detailed what he said he knew about a recorded conversation among Gardner, his associate Barefoot, Davis and Steele.

The alleged extortion attempt was based on a five-minute recording Davis made of the conversation. In it, Carotti said he heard Barefoot tell Davis if she gave $30,000 to $40,000 to Gardner’s consultant Donald Smith, he could squash negative press from columnist Paul Gable with The Grand Strand Daily.

The memo was labeled “ATTORNEY-CLIENT PRIVILEGED,” meaning it wasn’t meant to be seen by the public.

At the time, Gardner and Barefoot denied any wrongdoing.

A special meeting was called in the first week of the year to discuss Eldridge’s employment. A motion was created to suspend Eldridge until the SLED report was returned. Several council members denied the motion existed in a FOIA request, but the motion was revealed in a Sun News story.

Council member Harold Worley said at the January meeting if it turns out Eldridge made up the claims about Gardner, he’d be fired. If Gardner was complicit in an extortion attempt, Worley said it would be a sad day for Horry County.

Eldridge said he was just acting on County Council members’ recommendation when he reported the claims to SLED. He said in a letter to council he wishes to continue working for the people of Horry County.

The Council only has the power to fire Eldridge, but members could instruct a new county administrator to fire the attorney.

“If I lose the trust of my client, I will quit. You don’t have to play any politics with me,” Carotti said.

Development and Horry County reporter Tyler Fleming joined The Sun News in May of 2018. He covers other stuff too, like reporting on beer, bears, breaking news and Coastal Carolina University. He graduated from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2018 and was the 2017-18 editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel. He has won (and lost) several college journalism awards.