Extortion claims and Horry County’s problem with transparency need to be solved — now

By The Myrtle Beach Sun News Editorial Board


On the very day he was sworn in as Horry County Council chairman, Johnny Gardner denied any wrongdoing in the claims of extortion in a most unusual case under investigation by the S.C. Law Enforcement Division. The situation has plenty of political intrigue including a leaked, unsubstantiated report of an alleged — particular emphasis, if you will — crime, and elected and appointed public officials refusing to talk on the record.

SLED’s Pee Dee office is investigating after an online politics blog, FITSNews, reported on a leaked memo written by Horry County attorney Arrigo Carotti. The memo, labeled “ATTORNEY-CLIENT PRIVILEGED,” was sent to county council members. In the memo, Carotti described a dinner meeting that included Gardner, his law firm associate Luke Barefoot, Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation president Sandy Davis and director of investor relations Sherri Steele.

The Carotti memo quoted Davis saying that Barefoot suggested she give $30,000 or $40,000 to political consultant Donald Smith as a means of stopping negative commentary by Paul Gable, who writes for the Grand Strand Daily, an online commentary site. A major question is, who gave Will Folks, who operates FITSNews from Columbia, the Carotti memo? The identity of the leaker is much more than a matter of curiosity, because knowing the source likely will reveal his or her motives.

We imagine SLED investigators have determined, or will identify soon, the source of the leak, which seems designed to hurt Gardner. Possible leakers include the 12 district members and chairman of the county council, Carotti, County Administrator Chris Eldridge and the four people at the dinner.

Gardner and Barefoot strongly denied the extortion claims as “patently false” and “a concocted bunch of something about nothing.” Barefoot welcomed the SLED investigation. Davis, the MBREDC president, questioned the accuracy of the FITSNews post. In a response column, Gable said he was unaware of the allegations prior to news of the SLED investigation and added he would not accept money to use or not use an article.

As is their usual practice, Eldridge and Carotti refused to speak on the matter. Eldridge routinely denies news media requests for information. He operates in a transparency vacuum, as though he is above dealing directly with reporters or taxpayers. (Paid over $200,000 in salary, he is well above the pay grade of most folks.) It’s one thing not to handle routine media requests for information, quite another to shut down or limit the flow of information. Does Eldridge know how to spell transparency, let alone its meaning – and importance to good governance?

In his Republican primary election campaign, one of Gardner’s platforms was transparency in government. Very soon, the new county council chairman and the 11 elected district representatives need to reassert their responsibility for open and above-board governance, including overall control of the county administrator.

Horry County residents can count on SLED doing its usual professional work on this unique investigation and we trust SLED will complete its job as swiftly as possible.