Lawsuit Looms for Council Members

State Rep. MaryGail Douglas (D-41) breaks the news to County Council. (Photo/Barbara Ball)

WINNSBORO – Three members of County Council were formally put on notice Monday night – pay back money received since 2009 in lieu of supplemental health insurance premiums, or tell your story to a judge.

State Rep. MaryGail Douglas (D-41) delivered the ultimatum during the closing of Monday night’s public comments portion of the meeting, and said that the citizens’ group calling itself Saving Fairfield was not going to let this issue die. Douglas said Council had failed to respond to a Sept. 25 deadline for action set forth in a letter sent by State Sen. Creighton Coleman (D-17) and herself in August and now there was only one recourse remaining.

“Since Sept. 25, I cannot count the number of calls and the number of emails I have gotten asking ‘What did they say?’ ‘How are they going to pay the money back?’ Not one response has come,” Douglas said. “This, to me, smacks in the face of responsiveness to people who live in the walls of Fairfield County. Do you think this one’s going to go away, like the concerned citizens group did? Because that’s what you counted on then, and it happened. They threw their hands up in the air when the saw that nothing new was going to happen, that nothing different was going to happen. I’m going to tell you that you can count on the group that’s behind this movement now. It’s not going away. People in this county continue to be outraged, and I’m putting it mildly, at your belief and your behavior that you can do as you please, when you please and how you please.

“Saying that, allow this third time at the podium to serve notice that further legal action is in process,” Douglas continued. “For you to simply ignore and not respond is not acceptable. This will be seen through to closure. The notice that we give tonight is that the court system will now deal with that. You can look for papers to be served.”

Douglas said that more than 20 people had signed on as plaintiffs, and more, she added later, were pending. Coleman, she said, was handling the lawsuit.

Phone calls to Coleman were not returned at press time.

The practice of paying certain Council members for coverage of their hospitalization insurance dates back to 2009, according to county administrators. Council members are eligible for the County’s insurance policy, unless they are already, through their current or former employer, covered by a state plan, as is the case with Mikel Trapp (District 3), Chairman David Ferguson (District 5), and, until her retirement from Fairfield Memorial Hospital this summer, Mary Lynn Kinley (District 6). Because they were covered by a state plan, the County’s hospitalization supplement was not available to them.

Prior to 2009, these Council members, along with all part-time employees, were covered for hospitalization by the Carolina Cares plan. For each of the Council members in question, it was costing the County approximately $877 a month – or $31,560 a year total – to include them on the Carolina Cares plan. As the County worked through attrition to wean part-time employees from the plan, the three Council members were also asked to drop the plan and take a direct payout of $475 a month each – or $17,100 a year total – to get their own hospitalization insurance. That practice ended following a July 8 opinion from the S.C. Attorney General’s Office that called the payouts “unauthorized” and “a departure from the law.”

But a court of law, the Attorney General’s opinion said, would ultimately have to determine the legality of those payouts. It appears that now, the A.G.’s opinion will be tested.

Ferguson has maintained that those payments were received in good faith, and as recently as last month he reiterated that position.

“We were told by our (former) Administrator (Phil Hinely) it would save the County money,” Ferguson said in September. “Our question was, can we legally do that, and he said yes.”

But Monday night, Douglas said that just wouldn’t wash.

“You can beat it all you want that you did it in good faith, that you didn’t know it was wrong,” Douglas said. “In 2005, I stood at this same podium and told you that it was wrong then. It is still wrong now. The money that was paid to you needs to come back to this county.”

After the meeting, Ferguson characterized Douglas’s comments as “hurtful” and “hard to take.”

“And for what? What do you gain?” Ferguson said. “That seat (District 7) you ran for and lost (in 2008), you don’t get that. What do you gain from this?”

Kinley, near the close of Monday night’s meeting, said that Council had responded to Coleman by the Sept. 25 deadline. She also said the State Ethics Commission was reviewing the former policy of the payouts in lieu of insurance premiums.

“Once they conclude their investigation, then we’re going to make our decision,” Kinley said. “Once that is done, we will be responding to that.”

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