WINNSBORO, SC (WIS) - A WIS investigation and work by a group of Fairfield County taxpayers ended with 21 ethics charges against three members of the Fairfield County Council. Charges include the use of official office for gain on the basis of using tax dollars for vacation and failure to disclose income on ethics forms.
The charges came down Jan. 24 after the state Ethics Commission met and found evidence to support the 21 counts against council Chairman David Ferguson, Councilwoman Mary Lynn Kinley and Councilman Mikel Trapp.
All three face a charge of "Use of Office for Gain" after charges show each used taxpayer dollars to vacation in lodges on Hilton Head Island during the South Carolina Association of Counties' annual conference between 2010 and 2013.
The conference lasted three days, but records show all three booked rooms from Saturday to Saturday. Those rooms, ethics reports show, were paid for using Fairfield County tax dollars.
Trapp and Kinley also face charges of failure to disclose income on their ethics forms from money they took in lieu of using the county's health insurance benefit. Instead of turning down the benefit, they accepted payments from the county that equaled what the insurance coverage would have cost. Ferguson also accepted the payments, but was not charged in connection to it. All three accepted $72,390 under this set up.
We searched Ferguson's statement of economic interest filings and found he specifically reported "insurance" compensation for in 2011, 2013 and 2013. We could not find an insurance compensation specified in his 2010 statement of economic interest filing.
Trapp faces four additional charges after ethics investigators found he voted to send tax dollars to his sister-in-law's employer. The filing lists the company as CIC, Inc. but does not give any further detail about the company. In 2011, Trapp voted to give the company $3,734, the filing shows. In 2012, Trapp voted again to give the company another $3,500, and in 2013, he voted to give the company another $2,500.
Trapp's voting earned his sister-in-law's company a total of $9,734.
"As for the violations that you are reporting on today, they are considered minor violations regardless of what kind of spin is put on them," stated Trapp in a statement emailed to WIS late Tuesday. "Even though procedures was followed, errors was made on my part in not knowing the full spectrum of guidelines and laws of the South Carolina Ethics Commission Handbook."
"I see it as theft," said Beth Jenkins, a member of a group called Saving Fairfield. "I see it as using their power for personal gain. That's the only way you can see it."
Jenkins filed the ethics complaints against Ferguson, Kinley, and Trapp that resulted in the current ethics charges.
Jenkins went before council on multiple occasions, asking council members to repay and explain why taxpayers should pay for their Hilton Head Island trips. She never got a response.
"People in this county can't even go on vacations, and they're getting a taxpayer vacation. When we go to write our checks, thousands of dollars and then to think they're going to go on vacation with this. It just, it doesn't sit well with anyone," Jenkins said.
Sources tell WIS state ethics investigators opened new cases dealing with other members of county council not yet named. Ethics cases are required by state law to be kept secret until a finding of probable cause, which has kept us from learning the details surrounding the new investigations. Ethics Commission Executive Director Herb Hayden told WIS, "I can only talk about what's currently public."
We've sent messages to Ferguson, Kinley and Trapp, but as of this report those messages were not returned. All three have hearings before the Ethics Commission set for May 21, 2014.
Ferguson, Kinley, and Trapp were expected at Tuesday night's council meeting, but only Kinley showed up to the meeting.
Kinley would not offer a comment when asked about the ruling.
Ferguson's wife said he was out of the country.
Trapp was also a no show at the meeting, but he offered a statement on the ruling.
"They are considered minor violations regardless of what kind of spin is put on them," said Trapp. "Even though procedures was (sic) followed, errors was (sic) made on my part in not knowing the full spectrum of guidelines and laws of the South Carolina Ethics Commission Handbook."
The ethics charges against the council members carry either a criminal or civil penalty. The Ethics Commission chose not to prosecute the cases criminally.