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Beaufort County fire chief investigated in ethics complaint related to wife’s arrest

Sheldon Fire District

Several months after a state committee found there is possible credence to alleged ethics violations by a Beaufort County fire chief, the case has yet to go to a hearing.

Sheldon Fire District Chief Buddy Jones is the subject of a state ethics complaint filed in July 2018 exploring whether he used his position for economic gain for himself or his family. The S.C. Ethics Commission provided a copy of the complaint to The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet in response to an inquiry last month after the ethics commission found probable cause to the allegations in November.

The commission will determine whether Jones violated state ethics rules in how he handled his wife’s leave from her fire district job after she was arrested in 2017, as well as the process that resulted in Jones being hired back to his fire chief job in 2018 after a brief retirement period.

A hearing has not been scheduled and the case is still pending, a commission spokesperson said in an email Monday.

A phone message for Jones wasn’t returned Monday afternoon.

Jones’ wife, Diane Jones, was a fire lieutenant in her husband’s department when she was arrested in March 2017 and charged with providing alcohol to a minor. Jones was placed on unpaid leave but continued to be paid health benefits, with her husband signing off on all of the department’s bills, the ethics complaint alleges.

Diane Jones resigned in October 2018, according fire district board meeting minutes. She pleaded guilty in December to providing beer or wine to a minor and her 30-day sentence was suspended to time served if she completed a public service requirement.

Another aspect of the ethics investigation is related to the process that resulted in Buddy Jones retiring in January 2018 and being hired back to the same position starting that March after a 30-day waiting period. Jones and fire district board chairman Wayne Blankenship told interim Beaufort County administrator Josh Gruber on December, 19, 2017 that the board met and wanted to hire Jones, according to the ethics complaint.

The board didn’t meet until Dec. 27 to vote on filling the chief position, the complaint notes.

Blankenship said Monday that the position wasn’t advertised because Jones always intended to return and that the men met with Gruber to ensure it was OK.

“Everybody was happy with the job he had been doing and were satisfied with his work,” Blankenship said.

Blankenship declined to comment on the complaint’s allegations related to Diane Jones’ leave.

Gruber said Blankenship told him Jones planned to retire and return to his position and that the board unanimously supported Jones remaining as chief. Gruber noted the retirement and subsequent rehiring was allowed under state law. He said he wanted to ensure the arrangement was the intent of the board and that the district’s County Council representative was aware, and was assured of both.

“That to me satisfied my obligations,” Gruber said.

The fire district board met behind closed doors during a portion of a meeting on Dec. 14, meeting minutes show. The minutes don’t include a reason for the executive session or show the fire chief job being discussed or voted on during the open session.

During the Dec. 27 meeting, the board went into a private session to discuss a personnel issue and then voted to hire back Buddy Jones after a 30-day retirement and to increase Assistant Chief Dale Glass’ pay by $5,000, minutes show The decision was recommended by the board and approved by the county administrator, the document notes.

After ethics commissioners determine alleged violations have probable cause, an ethics commission hearing is held before three committee members selected at random.

If a person is found guilty of an ethics violation, the commission can recommend disciplinary action, issue a public reprimand, order restitution or fines up $2,000.

Sheldon Fire District serves communities in an unincorporated area in the northernmost reaches of Beaufort County. The district was formed in 1977, and Buddy Jones has been chief since 1989.

Blankenship said the district does not have a nepotism policy. Diane Jones was a Sheldon firefighter before marrying the fire chief, he said, and Buddy Jones consulted the fire district board when the couple married about whether there would be an issue and the board signed off on the arrangement.

Diane Jones reported to Assistant Chief Dale Glass, Blankenship said.