The State Ethics Commission has cleared Bluffton mayor Lisa Sulka on three allegations that she broke state ethics law, accepting from her an unusual statement in which she retroactively recused herself from a vote from three years earlier.
Accusations that Sulka voted in favor of land purchases that financially benefited her employer, Carson Realty, or other real estate agents at Carson were brought in March by Skip Hoagland, a Hilton Head businessman. Hoagland has been an outspoken critic of Sulka; some members of Hilton Head Island Town Council; Bill Miles, president of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce; and others.
The nine-member commission, whose job is to investigate allegations of ethics violations by public officials, reviewed documents, conducted interviews and met behind closed doors before mailing its findings to Sulka and Hoagland late last week.
“It’s exactly what I expected them to find,” Sulka said Wednesday of being cleared of the charges.
Sulka added that she’s frustrated with Hoagland who, she said, picked portions of town business to make it look like she had broken the law and continues to request additional documents from the town under the open-records law.
“It was very upsetting to think that he had made it where (the commission) felt I needed to be investigated,” she said.
Hoagland and a whistle blower group he started, Beaufort Watchdog, aren’t giving up and filed a rebuttal Tuesday, reasserting that Sulka violated the law and providing new material for the commission’s review.
A retroactive recusal
One allegation stemmed from a 2013 vote by Sulka and other members of Town Council to then-town manager Anthony Barrett to negotiate the purchase of several parcels of land for a new Bluffton Town Hall at Bluffton Village just off S.C. 46.
Several agents from Carson Realty, where Sulka also works as a real estate agent, “received an economic interest from the transaction,” according to the commission’s decision. A purchase agreement obtained by The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette shows Carson Realty was paid a 3.5 percent commission — $14,000 — for its work representing the town on the $400,000 purchase.
State law reads that “no public official ... may knowingly use his official office, membership, or employment to obtain an economic interest for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated.”
Sulka told the newspapers last week that town staff chose Carson Realty to be the town’s real estate agent, not Town Council, and that she did not know Carson Realty agents benefited from the land purchase because she did not review the contract.
To correct the problem, Sulka said she submitted a written statement to the town in September 2016, recusing herself from the 2013 discussion and vote about the land sale — even though they had taken place three years earlier.
Minutes from the town meeting do not make it clear what had occurred and fail to mention Sulka by name. And the resolution, which should make it clear, is not included among the resolutions listed on the town's website.
Still, the move satisfied the commission that waived further proceedings since Sulka had taken corrective action and writing that it “firmly believes that Respondent had no knowledge of Carson Realty’s interest.”
A retroactive recusal is an oddity and a misuse of “nunc tro tunc,” the legal term under which Sulka submitted her recusal statement, according to John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause South Carolina, a government watchdog organization. The doctrine is typically used to correct clerical errors and omissions in court records, he said, not to allow public officials to undo past actions.
“I’ve never seen this done before,” Crangle said.
It’s been an important lesson, Sulka told the newspapers, adding that she had previously thought public officials were only barred from voting on proposals that financially benefited themselves.
“Now I understand that even if someone you’re associated with benefits, you have to recuse yourself,” Sulka said. “I feel really stupid that I didn’t know that and very naive, but I didn’t know it.”
Land for parking
The commission also cleared Sulka of the accusation that she broke the law when she voted in 2007 to buy land from John Matthew Rowe, currently the broker-in-charge of Carson Realty. The property was for additional parking for Town Hall on Bridge Street, Sulka told the newspapers.
But she did not start work at Carson Realty until late 2008. And because Town Council did not review contracts back then, she did not know from whom the town was purchasing the land.
“Was it a conflict? I wasn’t working for him,” she said of Rowe. The commission also found that the allegation occurred outside of the four-year statute of limitation.
But Hoagland is unconvinced, pointing out in the rebuttal that Sulka may have worked for Rowe under another real estate entity.
Sulka denied the claim Wednesday, saying she has only worked for Rowe since she joined Carson.
Land purchased from a real estate agent
Hoagland also raised questions about a 2011 town land purchase from another agent at Carson Realty, Michael Hahn, for its Wharf Street redevelopment project. The $1.3 million affordable housing initiative involved the town buying about half an acre, building six cottages and selling them to residents who met income requirements.
Sulka told the newspapers last week that she did not know if Hahn, who was paid $113,850 for his land, was working at Carson Realty at the time of the sale — so no conflict of interest existed.
Because she is an independent contractor who primarily works out of her car, Sulka said she rarely goes into the Carson Realty office and does not know all of the other employees.
The commission concluded that town manager Marc Orlando handled the land sale and that Sulka had no involvement. Additionally, the statute of limitation had passed on the allegation.
“I didn’t force a sale to benefit anyone,” Sulka said.
More documents regarding the Wharf Street project will be sent to the commission, according to the rebuttal.
Gina Smith: 803-414-1340, @GinaNSmith