County Administrator Resigns

Phil Hinely, at a recent County Council meeting, resigned from his post as County Administrator Monday night.

FAIRFIELD – County Administrator Phil Hinely has resigned from his post at Fairfield County, effective June 28. Council announced the resignation at the end of Monday night’s work session.

“Monday’s meeting (June 24) was just all he could take,” Chairman David Ferguson (District 5) said after the work session. “He’s been beaten up over this pretty bad.”

Hinely’s departure from Fairfield County comes amid a firestorm of accusations and speculations about whether or not he used his County email account to forward emails containing pornographic images three years ago. The State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) was made aware of the allegations in February, but closed their file on the matter after consulting with Sixth Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield, who determined that none of the alleged images in SLED’s possession violated South Carolina’s obscenity laws. Hinely denied that the contents of the SLED file had come from his computer, and, as SLED closed the case without conducting an investigation, the origins of the alleged emails could not be verified. Hinely did admit to forwarding emails that contained “tasteless jokes,” but said none of them were pornographic or anything resembling the material in the February SLED file.

When a Columbia television station attempted to access Hinely’s emails through the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, the County offered to grant that access, but only for a fee of nearly $30,000. The Voice was allowed to review Hinely’s emails, although without the aid of Information Technology (IT) expertise, and found nothing resembling the contents of the February SLED file.

In a special called meeting June 5, County Council voted unanimously to sanction Hinely. Hinely was placed on probation by Council, to be reviewed by the Chairman, Vice Chairman and County IT Director at the end of a six-month period. Hinely’s salary of $130,292 was reduced 5 percent by Council for the duration of the probationary period, and he was required to submit an official letter of apology to Fairfield’s local newspapers. Council also voted to include contract employees under the same policy manual as regular, at-will employees, except where the manual conflicts with the contract.

But that failed to satisfy a number of Fairfield residents who, for the last two Council meetings, have choked Council chambers, scolding Council for their perceived leniency and calling for Hinely’s head.

A second set of emails, also alleged to have been sent from Hinely’s Fairfield County address, surfaced during Council’s June 24 meeting, presented to Vice Chairman Dwayne Perry (District 1) by Kevin Thomas, Chairman of the Fairfield County GOP, during the public comments portion of the meeting. Thomas’s comments sparked a disagreement with Hinely that threatened, briefly, to derail the proceedings.

“I’ve heard that some Council members have not seen the pornographic emails that Mr. Hinely sent,” Thomas said.

“Allegedly sent, please sir,” Hinely interrupted.

“My time is running quick,” Thomas said. “Please don’t interrupt me.”

“I am going to interrupt you, because you lie about me,” Hinely said.

When Thomas was finally allowed to continue, he said he had recently received a second set of alleged emails, dated as late as May 28, 2011, which he then presented to Perry. Thomas later told The Voice that the February SLED file had been verified as coming from Hinely’s computer by Barfield and that the second packet of alleged emails contained similar dates, subject lines and content. Thomas and Fairfield County Democratic Party Chairwoman Tangee Brice Jacobs issued a joint statement late last week calling for Hinely to resign.

Barfield, meanwhile, was unhappy to learn how his name had been attached to the scandal.

“I did not verify anything about where this stuff came from,” Barfield said Monday morning. “I was told who it was attributed to, but I didn’t do anything to verify that information.”

“I have no file. No file was left with me,” Barfield continued. “I met with a SLED agent and he asked me to take a look at it and to determine if there was any illegality. I determined that there was not.”

Perry said the Thomas packet contained images more graphic than those in the SLED packet, but that he was still unsatisfied with their authenticity.

“The whole thing has become a wildfire,” Perry said last week. “People are taking these emails as gospel, as factual. I feel like I have an obligation to make a good decision and not be influenced by people in the room telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. I do want to know if he (Hinely) did it.

“This thing is so much deeper than people realize,” Perry said. “Why is this coming out now, if the emails were allegedly sent three years ago?”

Ferguson said he and Perry had met with Barfield on June 26 for about 45 minutes to discuss the matter. After that meeting, Ferguson said, the decision was made, per Barfield’s suggestion, to instruct County attorney John Moylan to remove Hinely’s hard drive from his computer and ship it to a California company, recommended by Moylan, to be analyzed.

“My only regret is that I didn’t do that two months ago,” Ferguson said. “I should have had our IT department take Mr. Hinely’s computer apart and send that hard drive off right then.”

Ferguson said Hinely was aware of the County’s intent to remove his hard drive and supported the decision.

“I told him I wished I had done this from the start,” Ferguson said. “Mr. Hinely said, ‘I wish you had, too’.”

As Council began its own internal investigation, SLED, at the request of State Sen. Creighton Coleman (D-17), became involved again and arrived Thursday (June 27) to seize Hinely’s hard drive.

“We don’t need a whole lot of help getting to the bottom of this,” Ferguson said last week after learning of SLED’s involvement. “If there was not a criminal act that took place, what’s the purpose of an investigation? The first emails have not been substantiated, yet.

“I don’t know what got him (Coleman) in that favor (to call in SLED),” Ferguson said. “For two and a half months he hasn’t said anything. But he brings SLED back into it, and you know, that kind of scares me, to be honest with you.”

Coleman told The Voice on June 27 that, because of the uproar in the community surrounding the allegations, he asked SLED to launch the investigation.

“There have been questions in the community about it and we need to get to the bottom of it,” Coleman said. “If (Hinely) didn’t do it, his name needs to be cleared. If he did do it, then County Council needs to take action.”

A SLED spokesperson confirmed on June 28 that SLED was indeed conducting an official investigation this time and therefore would not answer questions from The Voice about why, if no criminal activity was determined in the first SLED case file on the matter, a formal investigation was launched now, or why the results of the first SLED case file were turned over to Ferguson instead of, or in addition to, the original complainant.

Ferguson said SLED took the hard drive on Friday (June 28) and provided the Council with a copy Monday afternoon. Ferguson said the Council would continue to pursue its own internal investigation independently of SLED’s efforts and in spite of Hinely’s resignation.

“There’s going to be a lot more names in this before it’s all over with,” Ferguson said last week. “I think when this thing all comes out, there will be mud on a lot of people’s faces. But Phil Hinely is gone, and that was the chore at hand.”

Ferguson said he attempted to talk Hinely out of stepping down and admitted that the decision did not look good in light of the investigations.

“This thing has been eating on him and his wife so bad,” Ferguson said. “He called me Monday night he said he was going to resign. The man gave us 12 good years of service. He’s a good guy.”

Ferguson also said he was not concerned with the potential political fallout from the scandal.

“Not one voter from District 5 has been in one meeting we’ve had since this stuff started,” Ferguson said. “My voters told me, ‘When we think you’re doing something wrong, we’ll let you know’.”

Councilwoman Mary Lynn Kinley (District 6) said Council would release their report on the contents of the hard drive at the conclusion of Council’s investigation. Council was to hold a special meeting Wednesday (July 3) at 6 p.m. to discuss Hinely’s resignation further.

Numerous attempts to reach Hinely for comment were unsuccessful at press time.

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