A hearing to determine whether state Rep. Andy Patrick should be held in contempt of court was closed to the public shortly after it started Monday afternoon, but people in the courtroom said Patrick was not found in contempt.
Family Court Judge Gordon Jenkinson ordered the hearing be private after a motion was made to bar news media from the courtroom, according to Beaufort County Family Court director Vanessa Bryan. She said she didn't know who made the motion.
However, a person who attended the hearing and spoke afterward said Patrick's attorney, Doug Brannon of Spartanburg, "stood up and asked the judge that press not be allowed in, and the judge honored that."
Attempts after the hearing to reach Jenkinson, a visiting judge from Kingstree, were unsuccessful.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association,said Jenkinson's decision to close the hearing could be illegal. The public is entitled to a reasonable amount of time to oppose the closure of a proceeding, he said.
"The law is quite clear that closing a hearing is a drastic measure," Bender said. "The public has a constitutional right to be present. No one had a realistic chance to oppose this closed hearing."
The hearing was to determine whether Patrick should be cited for not paying money he owes to the lawyer who represented his estranged wife, Amee Patrick.
After the hearing, Andy Patrick left the courthouse through a back entrance. He was seen in the parking lot getting into a silver Mercedes-Benz SUV.
Attempts after the hearing to reach Patrick, R-Hilton Head Island, were unsuccessful. Brannon, his lawyer, said he told Patrick not to comment. Brannon is also a member of the state House of Representatives.
Asked whether Patrick was held in contempt, Brannon said Patrick had left the courthouse, "and he didn't leave in handcuffs. How's that?"
Brannon declined to answer further questions.
Patrick was not held in contempt, according to the person who watched the proceedings. The person, who asked for anonymity, said Amee Patrick sat on the same side of the courtroom as Patrick and Brannon, directly behind them. On the other side of the courtroom was Lauren Martel, a Hilton Head Island attorney who formerly represented Amee Patrick in the couple's divorce.
In an email sent to The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette after the hearing, Amee Patrick said, "Ms. Martel disclosed to me that she would be seeking the maximum penalty in this case," which would be jail time for Andy Patrick.
"I find her (Martel's) agenda to be harmful to both our children and I," the email continued. "I can explain to you simply why I stand next to Andy today and that is because it's the right thing to do despite what side of the room its representation falls on."
Martel declined to comment after the hearing.
Andy Patrick had been ordered to pay $4,000 to Martel during a Feb. 19 hearing in Beaufort County Family Court. The money was to cover legal expenses incurred by Amee Patrick, who was then unemployed.
The money was to be paid by March 31, but Patrick had paid only $1,000 as of May 8, according to Martel and Amee Patrick.
Martel said she spent six hours trying to collect the money from Andy Patrick, so she sought $2,000 for the extra time plus the $3,000 he still owed, according to a sworn statement she filed.
It was not clear after Monday's hearing whether Patrick still owes Martel money.
Patrick has previously said he can't get a job. He owns a Hilton Head security firm, Advance Point Global, but has not drawn a salary since April 2013, according to court filings. He also has said he should not have to pay Martel until she sends him an itemized bill. However, Martel was not required by the court to send him such a bill.
Patrick unsuccessfully sought a congressional seat last year and launched a short-lived campaign for state superintendent of education this year. He has said he will resign from the legislature after his current term ends in November.
Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.