Beaufort County interim administrator defended Gruber contract day before resignation
Beaufort County attorney Tom Keaveny is blocking the public from seeing a taxpayer-funded report that details an outside attorney’s findings into the legality of Keaveny’s actions along with those of the county’s former administrator Josh Gruber, when the two crafted a $12,000 a month consulting contract last year for the latter without County Council’s knowledge.
The report was issued to Beaufort County Council on Monday by attorney Joanie Winters of Chester County, whom the county hired in early February to look into the contract that Gruber and Keaveny wrote in July 2018 shortly before Gruber left his position with the county to work as Hilton Head Island’s assistant town manager.
Winters was tasked with determining whether Keaveny and Gruber violated state law, county regulations or ethical responsibility, according to an email sent Feb. 7 from her to former interim administrator John Weaver, detailing her law firm’s contract with the county.
Winters was paid $285 an hour for the work, according to her contract. Council previously approved a sum not to exceed $10,000 to pay for the inquiry during a heated Nov. 5 hearing. It was not clear Friday afternoon what Winters’ final bill for the report will be.
Despite tax dollars paying for Winters’ consultation, county administrator Ashley Jacobs said Friday that the report would not be released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act, citing an exemption that allows for “attorney-client privilege.”
The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette first contacted Jacobs on Friday morning about obtaining the full report. After saying she would check with Keaveny on its release, she told the newspapers that Keaveny had determined the report could not be released.
When asked why Keaveny would be allowed to make that call given he is, in part, the subject of the inquiry, Jacobs repeated, “It’s about whether something that is attorney-client privilege can be released.”
When asked if it was the public’s right to know the details of the report because it was paid for by tax dollars, Jacobs declined to comment.
A call and an email from the newspapers to Keaveny asking for comment Friday were not returned.
Reached Friday evening, Gruber said he has not been contacted about the investigation or its findings.
County Councilman Mike Covert, who represents District 7, confirmed Friday that he had received the report.
“We haven’t been talked to. We would have to be briefed,” Covert said when asked if the report should be released. “... They told us it’s attorney-client privilege. I haven’t talked to the county administrator or attorney.”
Covert said he “would have a problem” with the report not being released and said he was “sure” it would be.
County Councilman Brian Flewelling, who represents District 5, echoed that concern.
“Because of the amount of public interest in this particular subject, I’m not sure we have an option,” he said of the report’s release. “We’ve opened up the conversation for one thing, shouldn’t we open it up for all? I’m generally inclined to say yes, let’s release it.”
Flewelling added that he believes the report should be discussed with the county’s staff and in executive session prior to its release.
“We are ready to consider the matter, and, of course, we are always concerned about proper ethical things within our county, and we want to make sure our employees and each other are handling affairs the way they should be handled.”
County Council Chairman Stu Rodman, who represents District 11, said the report can only be released by a vote of council. When asked when council will discuss and vote on the matter, he said he did not know.
Rodman declined to say what his thoughts were on the report’s release and instead responded, “We will leave it up to the entire council. If the majority want to (release the report), it’s fine. If the majority don’t, that’s fine too.”
Bill Rogers, executive director for the S.C. Press Association, said the only exception for the report not to be released would be if the county is investigating criminal behavior that could lead to prosecution.
“Certainly if it was paid for by the public, it’s a public document,” Rogers said. “... I think they are overly evoking attorney client privilege unless it’s involving pending legal action.”
A call to Jacobs on Friday afternoon to inquire about whether the county is considering legal action as a result of the report was not immediately returned.
Keaveny — formerly on Gruber’s staff as county attorney before becoming interim county administrator on July 20 — authorized Gruber’s consulting contract for $24,000, which ran from Aug. 6 to Oct. 8 with 30-day extensions at $12,000 each after Gruber accepted a new job as Hilton Head’s assistant town manager.
Because Gruber was paid the $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.
The contract angered some council members who felt it kept taxpayers in the dark and was struck in secret, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette reported in September.
Keaveny stepped down as interim administrator in late September in connection with his involvement in Gruber’s contract, according to previous reporting in the Packet and that Gazette.
Council appointed the investigation to Winters nearly seven months after tensions on County Council came to a tipping point when some Beaufort County councilmen said they were blindsided by the consulting contract.
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