County weighing taking legal action against reporter, newspaper group

SLED opens preliminary investigation into Delk issue

COUNTY — Pickens County Council is considering taking legal action against a local reporter and newspaper chain as a result of a series of articles concerning the departure of former county administrator Matthew Delk.

After discussing the issue in an executive session at a special called meeting Monday night, council emerged and voted unanimously to direct county attorney Ken Roper to investigate whether legal action can be taken against David C. Moody and Civitas Media, a North Carolina-based company that owns The Pickens Sentinel and The Easley Progress.

In the motion, council instructed Roper to obtain the services of other special legal counsel if interim county administrator Ralph Guarino and council chair Jennifer Willis deem it necessary.

Roper was first directed to try to determine whether there has been a breach of any confidential settlement agreements between the county and Delk or other contract negotiations, and what potential causes of action or damages have arisen as a result of the possible breaches.

In addition, Roper was instructed to investigate whether or not Moody, the newspapers, the media group or other individuals have interfered with any settlement agreements “to such a level as to amount to tortious interference with a contract, and what potential exists for damages and/or other relief for the courts.”

Roper is also tasked with determining whether Moody, the newspapers or the media group acted unethically or unlawfully in writing, editing and publishing an article or series of articles that implied a member of county council was or should be the focus of a law enforcement investigation, “when no known grounds exist for such an allegation or implication.”

The directions listed for Roper also include a request to determine whether Moody, the newspapers or the media group acted unethically or unlawfully in publishing an anonymous letter as part of a news article, “when the written editorial policy of Civitas Media is to require authenticating names, addresses and phone numbers for such letters.”

Finally, Roper was instructed to determine whether other grounds for recovery of damages and/or causes of action exist due to the behavior of Moody, the newspapers, the media group or other individuals “who may be involved in tortious conduct.”

“Our council is committed to upholding the (confidential settlement agreement with Delk) as dictated by law while complying with all (Freedom of Information Act requests) and other legal requirements,” Willis told the Courier on Tuesday. “Any interference, disruptance or contamination of this process must be addressed.

“Council is committed to defending wholly its actions as being upright, legal and within the law. We are confident that we will be upheld.”

The Courier reported two weeks ago that Pickens County sheriff Rick Clark had asked the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) to conduct an investigation into county councilman Neil Smith’s allegation that a former county administrator illegally used county resources.

Last Tuesday, SLED official Thom Berry told The Courier SLED is opening a preliminary investigation into the matter involving the former county administrator.

“The preliminary investigation will be to determine if a criminal act may have occurred. If so, the investigation will progress from there,” Berry said.

After less than six months on the job, Delk and the county parted ways in February. No reason was given for Delk’s abrupt resignation, and county officials said at the time they could not comment on personnel matters.

But according to documents in Delk’s human resources file, obtained first through a Freedom of Information Act request by Moody, the administrator and council members had butted heads as far back as December, when he was issued a written warning that his performance was “deficient” as compared to the standards outlined by the county employee handbook and/or his contract.

The warning, signed by Willis and Delk on Jan. 21, listed a number of areas of concern, including the administrator meeting with agencies without notifying council, taking a position contrary to council members in a public meeting, causing delays on three “vital” county construction projects and undermining a department head, among others.

However, the most serious allegations came in the form of an email sent by clerk to council Donna Owen on behalf of Smith prior to council’s planned retreat in February.

“Councilman Smith has asked me to put an email out to council to state that he is not planning on going to a council retreat with an administrator who is insubordinate, incompetent and who uses county resources in an illegal manner,” Owen wrote in an email sent to other council members on Feb. 11.

According to Pickens County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy Creed Hashe, the sheriff’s office received an anonymous letter asking why Smith’s allegation of illegal activity was not being investigated.