Politics & Government

He’s no longer Beaufort County’s top employee. So why did he just get paid $24K?

Josh Gruber, Beaufort County’s former top employee, is still getting paid by the county, earning $24,000 as a consultant — with the possibility of earning $12,000 more for each month-long extension of the contract.

Some members of council say the contract was struck in secret between Gruber, the county’s former interim administrator, and Thomas Keaveny, the county’s current one, leaving council members and taxpayers in the dark.

They’re also raising concerns about the vagueness of the contract, which states that Gruber will consult on an “ongoing and unlimited” basis, regarding “daily operations, ongoing projects, and business dealings involving Beaufort County Government,” from Aug. 6 through Oct. 8., with the ability to extend the contract every 30 days once the initial term ends.

“There are so many flags that are rising that I am very, very, deeply concerned and I want answers,” said council member Mike Covert. “This is not a contract for anything, yet it’s a contract for everything. It doesn’t say what we are hiring him to do.”

The contract could continue for months as County Council continues its contentious and drawn-out search for a new administrator, which has had two failed attempts that have cost taxpayers at least $39,500.

‘Nothing illegal about it’

The contract was signed by Keaveny and Gruber on July 24, the day after a bizarre County Council meeting in which Gruber, who was no longer a finalist, was unexpectedly voted to be the county’s new administrator. Less than an hour later, council members retracted their votes and opted to hire another candidate, who later rejected the offer.

Keaveny, the interim administrator and county attorney, did not return 10 phone calls and one email requesting comment about the contract during a three-day period.

After an eleventh call, Keaveny answered the phone but refused to comment about the contract.

“I’m going to talk to my (county) council about it next week and I don’t want to talk to anybody else about it before that,” he said.

When asked to elaborate on his stance, Keaveny replied, “I’ve got to go” and hung up the phone.

Beaufort County Council has long been divided about Gruber’s candidacy for the administrator post. It has been separated into two factions that voted accordingly in July: a group of five members — including the council’s chairman, Paul Sommerville — that supported Gruber, and a group of six that were against his confirmation from the beginning.

However, as Councilman Rick Caporale said in a Thursday phone call, he and the other council members against Gruber have never spoken publicly about their individual reasons why they don’t support him.

“He’s a likable person,” Caporale said. “I think (some council members) just thought he wasn’t the right person for the job.”

Gruber started as a Beaufort County attorney in 2011, and became deputy county administrator in September of 2014. When former administrator, Gary Kubic, retired in September 2017, Gruber became interim county administrator.

Many thought Gruber would be Kubic’s successor.

But in May, Gruber accepted a $152,000 job as assistant town manager for Hilton Head Island, which he began Aug. 6, according to Hilton Head town manager Steve Riley.

Though Gruber is being paid by both the county and the town, Scott Slatton, a legislative and public policy advocate for the Municipal Association of South Carolina, said there is nothing illegal about the arrangement.

“A former employee helping out their previous employer is not unusual,” Slatton said. “So long as the two entities (Beaufort County and Hilton Head) are OK with it, there’s nothing illegal about it.”

Riley said Gruber informed him of the county contract before beginning work with the town.

“He checked with me before he entered into the agreement to make sure it was OK,” Riley said. “It was clear it wouldn’t interfere with town work and would not be on town time.”

Gruber’s contract specifies his services will generally not happen between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, “so as to not conflict with other primary obligations required of the consultant.”

Should a conflict arise between the town and county, Gruber said he would not place himself between his employers.

Gruber was also allowed to keep his county-issued laptop permanently, according to the contract.

Slatton said given the nature of Gruber’s contract, he will likely need access to county records and software while providing consulting services, which makes the retention of his laptop reasonable. He declined to comment on the rationale behind allowing Gruber to keep the laptop permanently.

But John Crangle, a longtime SC government watchdog who now works for the S.C. Progressive Network, questions the judgment of those involved in negotiating the contract.

“Even if it’s not illegal to have the consulting contract, it seems to me ... the contract creates a real transparency problem,” he said. “Even if it’s not illegal, it’s bad judgment. The public is entitled to know about public business. It seems to me the consulting contract should have been fully disclosed.”

Crangle said he thinks the contract “could trigger a violation” of S.C. statute 8-13-720, which prohibits public employees from receiving additional money for any “advice or assistance given in the course of his employment as a public official, public member, or public employee.”

“If he would be asked to do something that’s related to his current (Hilton Head) job, that could be a violation,” Crangle said. “Because you’re being compensated as a consultant for doing something that you’re already paid to do. The idea is you’re not supposed to be paid twice for the same conduct.”

‘Tear up the contract’

Because Gruber was paid $24,000 when the contract became effective in August, County Council did not have to sign off on the arrangement. For purchases less than $50,000, no committee or council approval is needed.

“Council was not aware, nor should we be,” Sommerville said. “We don’t ask the administrator to report to us on minutiae.”

Covert, however, believes council should have at least been notified of the contract, noting there have been instances where a matter has not gone before council for approval but they are still notified of it.

“To sit there and say it doesn’t have to (go before council) because the rules say it, that is preposterous,” Covert said. “As a taxpayer, I’m very uncomfortable knowing we have a contract that is into perpetuity for any and everything or nothing at all. That’s a really good gig, and as a taxpayer I’m very concerned. Are there others out there? Do we have any other contracts that are subject to question?”

Caporale agreed that taxpayers have a right to be angry and demand answers on how their money is spent.

“’Larcenous’ is the only word I can think of to describe this,” he said. “If I’m a taxpayer, I want my money back, too, but I would be happy if they at least tear up the contract.”

Even if the contract is legal, Caporale said he sees a need for outside counsel to give this a look.

“Our council needs an (outside) attorney,” he said. “Our attorney signed this, so it can’t be him. We should potentially hire a lawyer or some sort of third-party investigator.”

In the meantime, Sommerville tasked Councilman Stu Rodman — who voted in support of Gruber in July — with investigating the contract prior to Monday’s finance meeting, where it will be discussed. In a Thursday phone call, Rodman confirmed his investigatory role but declined to comment about the nature of the investigation.

“Given that (Sommerville) did ask me to look into this, I don’t want to share (what I find) before executive session on Monday,” he said.

When asked if he expected to complete the investigation by Monday, Rodman said he “didn’t know yet.”

The contract

Gruber said the contract was “primarily” Keaveny’s idea.

Gruber said he drafted the contract himself and it was written up prior to the July council meeting. The rate of $24,000 was “settled on” through conversations with Keaveny, he said.

“(Keaveny) doesn’t have anywhere near the institutional knowledge Gruber has,” Sommerville said.

So far, Gruber has consulted Keaveny on “a number of different issues,” including on county contracts, county operations and the potential for storm debris cleanup before Hurricane Florence, he said.

Gruber said he and Keaveny touch base just about every day.

When asked if council should have been informed of the contract, Gruber agreed with Sommerville.

“That wouldn’t be standard procedure,” he said. “County Council is not involved in running the county.”

Because “at least one” council member requested information on the contract, the contract will be discussed at the upcoming finance meeting on Sept. 24, Sommerville said.

Caporale acknowledged he is at least one member who raised issue with Sommerville about the closed-door nature of the discussions.

“I don’t want to talk privately,” he said. “I want to talk about it publicly. Everyone should talk about it. This bears some examination. It’s a shady managerial decision. What does that say about transparency?”

Councilman Brian Flewelling, a finance committee member, said he’s going to take a wait-and-see approach.

“I don’t feel there’s much I can say until there’s at least something on the record (at next week’s meeting),” he said. “But it’s a little strange to me that this is a finance committee matter versus an executive, full County Council matter.”

Council member Jerry Stewart, who chairs the finance committee, said he, too, would rather wait to comment on the matter until after the finance meeting next week.

“This is something we need to air in council and get the facts out and not create a big stir in the public,” he said.