Beaufort County likely broke state law last year when it hired its former top employee, interim county administrator Josh Gruber, to serve as a consultant for $12,000 a month.
Additionally, Gruber failed to immediately obtain a business license to operate as a vendor and consultant with the county, and asked for payment from a county staffer while serving as her boss.
Those are the main conclusions of a newly released report, written by Chester County attorney Joanie Winters and submitted to County Council on June 3. Council members hired Winters in early February to assess the legality of the secret, controversial contract that allowed Gruber to continue working for the county after becoming Hilton Head Island’s assistant town manager in August.
The contract has been secretive in more ways than one.
First, members of council have said they were unaware of the contract, penned by Gruber and county attorney Tom Keaveny that went into effect July 24 and ran through Oct. 8. Additionally, Keaveny denied a June 7 request by The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette for a copy of the report, citing an attorney-client privilege exemption in the state’s open records law.
Two sources, who asked not to be named, recently provided copies of the report to the newspapers, giving the public its first look at the contract for which it paid.
Winters interviewed several current and former county council members and county staff for the report.
Specifically, she wrote that a state law requires a “cooling off” period after a public employee leaves his or her position. A former public employee “may not for a period of one year after terminating his employment, accept employment if the employment involves a matter in which the former public employee directly and substantially participated during his employment,” Winters wrote.
While Winters recommended improving certain county policies and procedures, she recommended the potential infractions be primarily addressed by the S.C. Ethics Commission.
“In asking every interviewee what they wanted to see at the end of the day with this matter, there was only one who actually said that they wanted Mr. Gruber to pay back the contract amount,” she wrote. “Everyone else, including the admitted naysayers, wanted to go back to the business of running the county.”
How Gruber got paid
Rather than go through the “proper” channels, Winters alleges in the report that Gruber went to Alicia Holland, the county’s chief financial officer, for payment on the contract.
“It is not unusual for Ms. Holland to be contacted directly by outside vendors,” the report said. “Even if that occurs however, she reverts the requests through proper process.”
Holland received an email from Gruber’s personal email asking for payment on July 17. At that time, Gruber was still Holland’s boss.
“Although Mr. Gruber did send Ms. Holland an email on July 17, she had a telephone conversation with him on the morning of Aug. 1, two days prior to his departure (as interim administrator), with regard to the payment of the contract,” the report said.
Holland did not process the contract until Gruber’s last day of employment with the county on Aug. 3.
“Certainly Mr. Gruber reaching out to Ms. Holland while still in the role of ICA is problematic, but it would appear that Ms. Holland recognized that and held off on the processing of the check until Mr. Gruber was not employed by the county any longer,” the report reads.
The process, Winters wrote, appeared to be “business as usual” with the county, evidenced by other contracts with employees leaving the county with “institutional knowledge.”
“We seem to have been doing these types of contracts for some time, some of which appear to be open-ended to date,” Winters wrote. “... This is something I would address immediately by sending cancellation notices to anyone who appears to have an open contract with the county.”
‘Institutional knowledge’ about hurricanes
In the report, Winters brings up a number of issues that arose from Gruber’s departure and the resulting contract.
“The county needed an interim county administrator due to Mr. Gruber’s pending departure, and Mr. Tom Keaveny, who had been serving as the county attorney since May 2015, was asked to serve this interim capacity,” Winters wrote. “Mr. Keaveny initially said no, I’m not qualified.”
Winters then wrote that Keaveny eventually agreed to take the interim administrator position “after some pressuring from the Chair (then District 2 Councilman Paul Sommerville), Mr. Keaveny reluctantly agreed to serve provided council continued to search for an administrator, and this was approved by council on June 24, 2018.”
Keaveny, the report says, acted “in haste” to engage into the contract with Gruber in July because hurricane season was in full swing and Keaveny had “absolutely no experience in hurricane preparedness.” Gruber, the report said, had “significant” experience in managing hurricanes and knowledge of how to work with FEMA.
Winters wrote that a few council members said the county’s emergency services departments, including the Emergency Management Division, were up to the task of handling hurricanes, but that there was tension between those departments and the county.
“It was explained to me by one individual that the EMA and EMD reported to the Sheriff during this time, and there was a lot of consternation with the county and the Sheriff,” Winters wrote. “It would appear that neither Mr. Gruber or Mr. Keaveny were anticipating a great deal of cooperation from the EMA and the EMD as a result.”
Winters also noted something unusual about her interviews with county staff and council members. Several referred to Gruber’s “institutional knowledge.”
“Several used this phrase during their interview, which struck me as odd,” Winters wrote. “While I understand the meaning and the importance, it was just unusual for everyone to use the same phrase. The concern seemed to be that the county would be harmed by the loss of this institutional knowledge held by Mr. Gruber.”
The only man for the job?
According to the report, council members also questioned why Gruber was not required to register as a vendor with the county and apply and pay for a business license as a consultant.
Winters wrote that Gruber did apply and pay for a business license. But he did not file the paperwork until October at the conclusion of his contract rather than at the beginning.
Additionally, Gruber was a sole vendor — another potential violation of county code.
Purchases between $5,000 to $24,999 require quotes from three vendors, according the county’s procurement policy. Contracts are to be awarded to the lowest responsive and responsible vendor. Winters wrote that a sole vendor may be permitted when only that vendor is capable of providing a service, making impossible to obtain competing bids.
“In Mr. Keaveny’s letter to Chairman Rodman dated Sept. 18, 2018, he describes his history in hiring outside assistance and on page 3, states why Mr. Gruber was the sole source for the upcoming need of assistance,” Winters wrote.
The letter Winters references was not included in the summary report sent to the newspapers.
An ethics violation charge against Gruber was filed with the S.C. Ethics Commission in October by a Port Royal resident. A hearing is expected to be held June 21 in Columbia.
“At this point, there is considerable clean-up from this entire transaction since it would appear that there was no one without fault,” Winters wrote in her closing remarks. “While I don’t believe that there is any criminal intent, there certainly was some poor judgment and hasty decisions.”