The state office that investigates attorney misconduct recently dismissed a case against Beaufort County School District attorney Drew Davis, according to an April 24 letter signed by the Supreme Court of South Carolina’s Commission on Lawyer Conduct.
Beaufort County school board member John Dowling filed the complaint against Davis in March for allegedly deceiving the Beaufort County Board of Education, misrepresenting the law and threatening board members with civil or criminal penalties in a closed-door January meeting if they publicly disclosed the district’s involvement in an FBI investigation. Four of the nine other board members at the meeting had similar recollections.
Davis denied the allegations from the start, reaffirmed his innocence Monday and said he is owed an apology from Dowling.
"I was always confident that (dismissal) would be the outcome," he said. "There was never any truth to the allegations nor was there any basis to the alleged violations of the rules of professional conduct ... I find it absurd that someone who communicates and conducts himself in the way that Mr. Dowling does believes that he was intimidated or threatened in the manner alleged. Nothing is further from the truth. "
Davis also said the time involved in the entire episode could have been better used to advance the district's interests.
"Generally, it's disappointing when a member places his or her personal vendettas and interests over the interests of the school district," he said. "There was time wasted in creating and responding to the complaint."
Asked how many hours he spent responding to the complaint, Davis said he didn't know if he logged the specific number of hours.
Dowling said the time he spent crafting his complaint did not take away from his duties as a school board member.
"That's patently absurd," he said Monday.
The commission voted April 20 to dismiss Dowling’s complaint based on information from Dowling, Davis and South Carolina disciplinary counsel John Nichols’ investigative report. The panel's inquiry was limited to whether or not there was evidence of ethical misconduct, according to the letter.
About 85 percent of the nearly 1,500 cases investigated by the disciplinary counsel in the 2017 fiscal year were dismissed without a sanction.
"We treat all complaints as if there's something to them, out of fairness,” Nichols said in an earlier interview.
Speaking generally and not to any specific case, he continued: “There may be some indication that something went wrong, but we don't think we can establish a case." Investigators have to find "clear and convincing evidence" of a violation.
Dowling said he accepted the commission's judgment, but said their decision didn't nullify the threats he said Davis made.
"The issue is not 'Did he make the threat,'" he said Monday. "Five board members left the meeting feeling threatened. Obviously, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel ruled that that did not break a rule."
Dowling also said he did not regret filing the complaint against Davis.
"I had every right to bring the action that I did," he said. "He shouldn't have made the threat. I wasn't out to see him get punished. I was out to see him held accountable."
Davis noted Dowling's "propensity for making false accusations."
In April 2017, Dowling, who was a private citizen and not on the board at the time, confronted school board member Mary Cordray at the end of a meeting in a tense verbal exchange in which he called Cordray "a sick coward" and she called him a "stupid piece of doo-doo." District chief auxiliary services officer Gregory McCord escorted Dowling out of the building that day.
Both Dowling and Cordray filed police reports related to the incident. Neither reports resulted in criminal charges.
Dowling also pursued a restraining order against McCord in magistrate court. Davis cross-examined Dowling and the judge found no evidence of a pattern of harassment against Dowling.
"This marks the third separate body that has reviewed a complaint or accusation levied by Mr. Dowling against a member of the district's senior staff and all three of those bodies have dismissed Mr. Dowling's accusations," Davis said, referencing the disciplinary counsel, the Beaufort County magistrate's decisions and the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office declining to press charges .
The board voted to hire Davis in 2014, even though he had not yet passed the S.C. Bar exam. He is the district's first in-house lawyer.
Davis announced earlier this month that he will leave the district May 31, about a year before his contract expires, for a job opportunity he has previously declined to disclose.
The 2014 hiring application for the district’s general counsel noted that the position reports to and is annually evaluated by both the superintendent and board, but Davis’ contract was made only with the district. Per the terms of the agreement, the superintendent evaluates him and holds unilateral termination power.
The conflicts in those two job descriptions sometimes caught Davis in the middle of disagreements between the board's minority bloc, which Dowling aligns with, and the superintendent.
Earlier this month, the board unanimously voted for the advertising of the general counsel position to serve only the administration.
S.C. Office of Disciplinary Counsel complaint disposition by the numbers
388 Immediately dismissed
847 Dismissed after investigation
9 Closed due to death of lawyer
3 Closed, but not dismissed
3 Deferred disciplinary agreement
12 Private admonitions
103 Letters of caution
20 Public reprimand
35 Suspensions (vary in length from 3 months to 3 years)
21 Permanent resignation in lieu of discipline
45 Disbarred (5-year period)
*From July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017