Politics & Government

‘Alarming’ & ‘confusing’: Beaufort Co. officials ask what’s holding up this investigation

Beaufort County woman worried about council ‘interference’ in Gruber investigation

Port Royal resident Mare Baracco spoke up at Monday's Beaufort County Council meeting about concern over the investigation into Josh Gruber's consulting contract.
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Port Royal resident Mare Baracco spoke up at Monday's Beaufort County Council meeting about concern over the investigation into Josh Gruber's consulting contract.

It’s been more than two months since Beaufort County Council voted to hire an outside lawyer to investigate a controversial $24,000 consulting contract between the county and a former employee, but that inquiry has, seemingly, gone nowhere.

And while the matter was not part of Monday’s regular-session council agenda, it was brought up in the meeting by a citizen who asked about the probe — and accused some on council of trying to stifle it.

“(I)t was profoundly disturbing to learn the new (council) chairman (Stu Rodman) sent an email January 12 from his personal account to some council members and senior employees suggesting this investigation be shut down,” Port Royal’s Mare Baracco said during the first call for public comment.

The email she referenced was part of a packet of information she handed out to council members and later, when asked, shared with The Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette.

The email, which Rodman on Wednesday told the newspapers he wrote, said, among other things, that interim Beaufort County Administrator John Weaver was “finding it hard to find an appropriate attorney” to investigate the consulting contract former interim administrator Josh Gruber was given July 24, some two weeks before he became Hilton Head Island’s assistant town manager.

Complicating the matter was that Tom Keaveny — formerly on Gruber’s staff as county attorney before himself becoming interim county administrator July 23 — authorized the arrangement.

The $24,000 contract ran from from Aug. 6 to Oct. 8, with options for 30-day extensions at $12,000 apiece.

On Tuesday, Gruber declined to comment on the inquiry but said he’d not been contacted by any investigator.

Interim Beaufort County Administrator Josh Gruber gives a presentation in this file photo. Staff photo

The contract angered some council members who felt it was nebulous, struck in secret and kept taxpayers in the dark, the newspapers reported in September. And it concerned government watchdogs, who said, while not illegal, the contract illustrated poor judgment and a lack of transparency.

Rodman’s email went on to say that he didn’t want to “ignore a Council directive” — county council narrowly approved funding of up to $10,000 for the investigation Nov. 5, the last of three heated hearings — but he was inclined to “ask (Weaver) to temporarily suspend the exercise” and authorize him to “close out the matter if no Member brings it forth and Council doesn’t vote to continue.”

But councilman Mike Covert — a recipient of Rodman’s email, who further verified its authenticity — called the message “alarming” and “confusing.”

“I’m still kind of confused,” Covert said Wednesday, “because so much time has elapsed, and we still haven’t had an attorney look at it.”

“We talked about this, we voted,” Covert continued. “Why is this being said now? We voted to do it.”

Councilman Brian Flewelling, also a recipient of the note, said he was “disappointed with this email.”

“I have every expectation that council’s directive will be followed, regardless of what the chair says,” Flewelling said Wedensday.

When asked why he felt the investigation should continue, Flewelling said there was a period of time when council was kept in the dark about the county’s consulting relationship with Gruber, and that a review of council decisions during that period was important to ensure the body’s actions were appropriate.

When asked if he knew of any decisions that might have been adversely affected because of the consulting contract, Flewelling said, “No, not off the top of my head.”

When asked about his email, Rodman said he “would never unilaterally” halt the investigation.

But he questioned the logic of pursuing the matter — given that council later extended the contract.

“Council said, ‘Let’s investigate it, but let’s extend it,’” Rodman said. “So you now have to say, ‘What’s wrong with the contract if you wanted to extend it?”’

In Rodman’s mind, the inquiry could be considered moot, because the extension, in essence, ratified the arrangement.

Rodman and others have justified the contract because the demands that were being made of Keaveny, who was asked to step into the interim role while still serving as county attorney. And others touted Gruber’s experience with storms: he helped lead the county through 2016’s Hurricane Matthew and 2017’s Tropical Storm Irma.

Newly-elected Beaufort County Council Chairman Stu Rodman (center, seated) and his colleagues pose for their official county photo after a specially called meeting Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, in Beaufort, S.C. Wade Livingston wlivingston@islandpacket.com

Rodman has long been a proponent of Gruber, whose candidacy during two county administrator searches contributed to their failure, which cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. The county still does not have a permanent administrator.

But another email Baracco gave to council Monday night shows just how much Gruber has continued to factor into council politics.

In a September 8 email ahead of Hurricane Florence and addressed to councilman Paul Sommerville and former member Jerry Stewart — both Gruber supporters — Rodman, who verified the message’s authenticity Wednesday, wrote: “This is a golden opportunity to demonstrate the childish foolishness of some on Council that has put us in a dangerous position and then stand up as adults and hire Josh.”

That email came just over a month after Gruber assumed the assistant town manager role with Hilton Head.

Toward the end of her remarks, Baracco asked council to prevent Rodman from interfering with the investigation.

Rodman said he would happily recuse himself if he felt the need to.

He said council would take up the matter “relatively quickly” and that it might be on the agenda at the body’s next meeting Jan. 28.

Covert said he planned to raise the issue if an attorney hadn’t been hired by the end of the month.

Baracco also raised concerns about a piece of property officials say Gruber purchased without authorization last year.

Council discussed the matter at length and referred the item back to the community service committee; it could surface again at the body’s next meeting.

The property is intended for a disabilities and special-needs home in Battery Point.