Horry County Government spent more than $50,000 defending against Treasurer Angie Jones’ lawsuit, according to public records.
The question of the lawsuit’s cost was first raised by a local political blogger who sued the county in June over the legal bills for the case.
Paul Gable, a former Myrtle Beach Herald reporter who writes for Grand Strand Daily, argued in court records that the county violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act by declining his request for the amount of money the county spent on the Jones case.
In a response filed Friday, county officials agreed that a government’s legal bills are public documents, but they said Gable asked for a figure, not the billing records themselves.
State law does not require a public body to create a document or perform calculations to comply with a FOIA request.
Jones sued the county in November after council members refused to amend their budget provide her with an additional administrative assistant.
The treasurer argued that she needed more staff to efficiently manage her office. She also sought control of the business license and hospitality fee divisions of county government.
Jones dropped her lawsuit in May.
Myhorrynews.com received the invoices from the Jones case after filing a public records request for those documents. County officials also confirmed the billing information.
So far, the McNair Law Firm of Myrtle Beach has billed the county just over $78,000 for legal services related to the Jones case, and a final bill for nearly $4,000 is expected to arrive soon.
However, the county has received more than $30,000 in insurance reimbursement for the case, according to public documents. That brings the net cost of fighting the lawsuit to $51,761.73.
Gable’s lawsuit is steeped in local politics.
His complaint was filed four days before the Republican Primary for Horry County Council chairman. That race featured incumbent Mark Lazarus, a frequent target of Gable’s criticism, and challenger Johnny Gardner, the candidate Gable supported.
In a June 11 blog post, Gable wrote that he requested the McNair information to find out if the county could have saved money by spending about $40,000 for the administrative assistant Jones requested rather than fight her in court.
The county noted the political nature of the blogger's lawsuit in Friday’s filing, which pointed out that Gable’s attorney, Reese Boyd, also represented the Gardner campaign. The county called Gable’s lawsuit frivolous and filed a counterclaim, asking that the court dismiss the case and sanction Boyd.
Boyd said Friday that he had not read the county's response and didn't want to comment on the matter until he had reviewed it.
When asked about the McNair bills, county attorney Arrigo Carotti praised the firm in a prepared statement.
“It appears that the concern expressed over the expense incurred in defending the recent Treasurer’s lawsuit, under the guise of public interest, is disingenuous, as it seems to have been done for purely personal and political benefit derived from continued attacks on public servants,” Carotti said. “I am confident that the Treasurer, who has indicated to me her desire for all of us to move forward cooperatively and not divisively, and has demonstrated that desire in dealings with me, will officially condemn such attacks. As far as legal defense, County Council, as well as other County officials and personnel, including the Treasurer as a component part of County Government, those dedicated to public service and stewards of public resources, can rest assured that they can act properly and in accordance with the rule of law without intimidation over the threat of litigation or actual litigation. They will be provided exceptional representation, as Council and the Administrator were by the McNair law firm on a case that involved significant issues of wide ranging implication, both locally and State-wide.”
At the time Jones dropped her lawsuit, she said some county officials had assured her they would boost her budget by about $100,000 to pay for two additional assistants. However, when it was time to vote on the budget, the council split on the issue and Jones’ office did not get any additional funding.
Jones, who agreed to pay her attorney's fees, on Friday declined to discuss Gable’s lawsuit or her own case. She said she’s working well with other county officials now.
“This is over,” she said. “We’re all moving forward.”