Council cautioned about info leaks

WINNSBORO – Just before adjourning the regular county council meeting last week, Chairman Neil Robinson cautioned council members not to discuss outside of executive session information concerning current or possible litigation the county might be involved in.

“It will behoove us not to discuss this publicly, because it could negatively impact the county,” Robinson said.

While Robinson did not disclose which, if any, council members might have discussed confidential information with members of the public, Councilman Moses Bell pushed back against Robinson’s caution.

“Okay, so does that mean that members of council getting this information cannot discuss it, so to speak, because there’s some information that I know, has not been officially given to us in executive session as a council,” Bell said. “So, if we don’t have the information from an official source, then, how is it that we cannot discuss it?”

 Bell was accused by another councilman during the Nov. 11, 2019 meeting of leaking information about a confidential economic development deal. Bell denied that accusation at the time.

“I’m unaware of what unofficial sources you’re referring to,” County Attorney Tommy Morgan said in answer to Bell’s question. “Regardless of the source, whether it’s official or unofficial, if there’s any information that comes to counsel that could potentially, if it were divulged or disclosed, have an impact on that case, then it would be my opinion that it would be council’s and individual council members’ duty to their taxpayers and to the citizens to keep that information from spreading because of the possible impacts,” Morgan said. “If you do divulge that information [and it] does get out, then it may have that effect. But that’s the whole reason why we try to have that confidentiality because of the process that’s involved in the litigation,” he said.

“The county is involved in multiple litigations right now – in cases the county is the plaintiff and also cases in which it is the defendant,” Morgan said. “These cases range from things as simple as road closures to incidents involving our law enforcement and detention center. And we’ve got other contractual disputes that are out there. With council being aware of the specific facts about those cases, if that information were to get out, it could impact the county’s position. It could be perceived that the county is not acting in good faith going forward with the litigation, or it could impact a potential settlement. [The other] parties could try to change the venue for cases that would normally be heard in Fairfield County which, in most instances, is preferable because it’s the taxpayers’ money and issues that are in question,” Morgan said.

“If anyone questions you about what’s going on with a particular matter with council, just say, ‘Hey, look I’m sorry I can’t talk about that. It’s pending litigation,’” Morgan said. “If anybody has specific questions I’ll be happy to try to answer them, to the extent possible without divulging any attorney-client information.”

“I understand that,” Bell continued. “The question I have is this one. I remember, some time ago in the paper, we were talking about. And I won’t talk about the companies but we just talking about a settlement. I think I talked to you and Mr. Taylor, and I said this is some of the stuff I heard. And you said, ‘Well you might have heard that but we don’t know whether that’s true or not’. And it was all over everywhere that the county would receive the settlement for a certain thing. And we could almost rest assured that we were going to do that. Now, I have not been given that information from you, Mr. Taylor. Okay, and people were discussing it, and I came to you all and asked you all about that. So, there’s a lot of information out there. So, a question, then, is how do you hold the council liable for information? I got a suggestion for that. And that is, as litigation comes forward, all members of council should be told, so that we all have the same information,” Bell said.

“So we’ve discussed both of these cases in executive session – just about every time we’ve had an executive session,” Councilman Jimmy Ray Douglas said. “When there was an important change in something, we’ve always heard about it in executive session. This is nothing they’ve held back from us, but the fact is, you need to listen in the executive session so you’ll know that you’ve been told.”