It was a vote toward the end of Columbia City Council's Tuesday night meeting that most people probably wouldn't think twice about, but Councilman Moe Baddourah's appointment of a new part-time municipal judge comes with some controversy.
“I would like to move to nominate Rick Morgan for substitute judge,” Baddourah said seconds before a unanimous vote from council confirming the judicial appointment.
Online South Carolina Ethics Commission campaign contribution records show that the judge Baddourah appointed, attorney Richard Morgan, has donated to Baddourah's various political campaigns four times over the years – donations totaling $700.
"The takeaway here is that the public is not involved at all,” said Ashley Landess, the President of the South Carolina Policy Council.
Landess said the incident is shocking and makes her feel vulnerable and powerless. The name of the judicial appointee did not appear on the meeting’s agenda.
"These are the people who are making some pretty important decisions for citizens. We have every right to be engaged in that process. We have no idea that that's even happening, you know, much less a way to push back or to hold someone accountable,” said Landess, a government watchdog.
But WIS didn't stop with Tuesday’s appointment. After combing through the minutes for almost every council meeting so far in 2015, WIS found out that others have been appointed to various positions by the city council politicians whose campaigns they've donated to.
Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine re-nominated a campaign donor to the Columbia Housing Authority Board of Commissioners in April of 2015.
Baddourah nominated a separate campaign donor to the District 3 Citizen's Advisory Committee as a representative. Ethics Commission records show that an individual by the same name donated two times to Baddourah’s campaign.
The same records show that Mayor Steve Benjamin helped appoint or re-appoint four donors to various panels and committees – some of whom had made multiple donations to the mayor over the years.
"It seems that, perhaps, these folks are just nominating, well, their friends and maybe their benefactors. And yes, that is troubling,” said Landess.
In a statement, Mayor Benjamin responded, "I'm proud of the fact that I have nominated and supported the nominations of political opponents and supporters alike to our city's boards and commissions. The City's boards and commissions are unpaid advisory boards and we need the best and brightest from the Midlands serving."
In Baddourah's case, though, his appointee for judge will be paid. City Manager Teresa Wilson says part-time judges make $300 for a full day of work and $200 for a half-day.
Baddourah kicked off his re-election campaign Wednesday night in Five Points. WIS tried to catch up with him at that event to get an interview with Baddourah, but instead, the councilman issued a statement.
"Richard Morgan is an outstanding attorney. He applied for the position, and he was the best applicant, as evidenced by the fact that the vote was unanimous,” Councilman Baddourah wrote. “Like a lot of judge candidates, Mr. Morgan has contributed money to the city council members – including myself. That was not a factor in his nomination or appointment."
WIS also heard back from Tameika Isaac Devine who admits she did recommend a campaign donor to a position but says that position was unpaid and the appointee was qualified.
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