MPA attorney withdraws from case

Ashley Hunter, owner and CEO of MPA Strategies

BLYTHEWOOD – The attorney representing Ashley Hunter and her marketing firm MPA Strategies in a lawsuit against the Town of Blythewood and a countersuit filed by the Town, is withdrawing from the case.

During a non-jury trial roster meeting in Richland County Common Pleas Court Monday morning, no attorneys were present to represent either the plaintiff or defendant in the two cases. Instead, Attorney Hunter Adams with Columbia law firm Richardson Plowden told Judge Deandrea Benjamin that the attorneys from both sides were attending a funeral, and that Attorney Joseph D. Dickey, Jr. had recently joined the Richardson Plowden law firm and would not be continuing his representation of MPA and Hunter.

Richardson Plowden announced on Jan. 4, 2023, in a Facebook media realease that Dickey had joined the firm’s Columbia office in the capacity of Special Counsel.

Prior to joining Richardson Plowden, Dickey maintained his own office in West Columbia.

Judge Benjamin allowed MPA 90 days to engage new counsel.

The Voice left a voice message with Dickey, asking why he will not be able to continue to represent MPA and Hunter.

The lawsuit against the Town was filed on June 28, 2021 after Mayor Bryan Franklin failed to submit responsive documents to a Freedom of Information request from MPA Strategies, the marketing and grant writing firm the Town had contracted with just two months prior.

“The Town still has not complied with the plaintiff’s request and has demonstrated no intent to comply with the law,” Hunter stated in her complaint.

Hunter asked for a declaratory judgment and for injunctive relief pursuant to and under the authority of S.C. Code 30-4-10, et seq., the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

MPA filed the complaint in the Court of Common Pleas Fifth Judicial Circuit in Richland County.

The complaint stated that on or around November, 2020, the Town contacted MPA concerning proposed marketing and grant writing services. That contact was suggested by former Blythewood Town Administrator Brian Cook. Hunter was providing similar services for a number of other towns in South Carolina who, Cook said, were pleased with her work.

According to the complaint, council initiated a request for proposal (RFP) for marketing and grant writing services on Dec. 30, 2020.

Nonprofit not required in RFP

The complaint states that the RFP did not require applicants to be a nonprofit, tax exempt organization or eligible to receive state accommodation tax funds to be responsive.

In addition to MPA’s RFP, the Town also received submissions from NP Strategy and the Greater Blythewood Chamber of Commerce.

The contract was subsequently awarded to MPA over the Chamber of Commerce by a town council majority vote of 3-2 on Feb. 22, 2021. NP Strategies was not considered because of cost.

Franklin and Councilman Eddie Baughman were the two dissenting votes, favoring the Chamber of Commerce over MPA.

The complaint stated that while having a nonprofit entity was never a requirement of the Town’s RFP, the Town subsequently advised MPA that it would be beneficial for MPA to become a nonprofit entity. The complaint stated that MPA complied, establishing the nonprofit State and Frink Foundation.

“Despite awarding the contract, the Town then required MPA to further negotiate the contract outside the parameters of the original RFP,” the complaint stated.

The contract was negotiated by Franklin with assistance from Town Attorney Shannon Burnett and Town Administrator Carroll Williamson.

Stalled Negotiations and Rumors

After almost two months of unsuccessful negotiations and because rumors had allegedly been spread about Hunter to the media and other town officials, MPA submitted a written FOIA request to the Town on April 15, 2021, in which MPA asked for all documents from Franklin’s devices relating to MPA pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. 10-4-10, et seq.

The mayor signed the contract the next day and sent it to Hunter to sign.

MPA’s FOIA request sought disclosure of, among other things, certain documents and recordings from Mayor Bryan Franklin related to MPA, Ashley Hunter and State and Frink Foundation, MPA’s nonprofit entity.

Town Charges, Then Drops $500 FOIA Fee

On April 20, Franklin authorized retaining Nexsen Pruet Attorney David Black to represent the Town in its dealings with MPA.

On April 23, 2021, MPA received correspondence from Black acknowledging receipt of MPA’s FOIA request and advised the cost of copying documents….10 cents per page plus $10 per hour for copying and a fee of $500 to pull email and text messages per device for the electronic data sought through the FOIA.

Three days later Dickey responded, questioning “the excessive fee of $500 for a third party vendor to check devices.” After receiving no reply from Black, the complaint states that Dickey sent a follow up email on May 5, 2021, inquiring if Town’s response would be received no later than May 24, 2021, the due date for the Town to submit the documents.

On April 29, The Country Chronicle newspaper sent FOIA requests to all five Blythewood town councilmen for documents concerning MPA Strategies. After receiving the Country Chronicle’s FOIA request, Town waived all FOIA charges previously quoted to MPA.

More Response Delays

On May 24, according to the complaint, Dickey emailed the Town stating there had been no communication from the Town since May 7, 2021, and that, “today is the deadline for the Town to respond with the requested information.”

According to the complaint, about 45 minutes later, Black responded.

“As we discussed, your FOIA request overlaps with several other requests for the same data. All of the data is being pulled by an independent contractor [TCDI]. We are still in the process of pulling all of the data,” Black wrote.

Franklin had insisted publicly and repeatedly that he wanted all council members to submit all their devices – personal and town issued – to Black to be processed through TCDI. The Freedom of Information Act, however, does not require that FOIA responses be processed in that manner.

The complaint stated that Black said the independent contractor would pull all documents from all the devices and that he would then determine which documents were responsive and submit them to the requestors. Not all of the councilmen wanted to submit their personal devices to be scanned and said they would submit responsive texts, emails and other documents directly from themselves or through their own attorneys, which complies with the Freedom of Information Act.

“I do believe we are entitled to a timeframe of which to expect responses,” Dickey replied, according to the complaint. “Is that something the Town is unable to provide?”

Black emailed back, “Correct. I am unable to provide you a timeframe until we get all of the data from all devices. Thanks for your understanding. Additionally, you have made allegations that a town employee made some form of defamatory or improper comment regarding your client,” Black wrote. “If you could elaborate on that it may help me expedite things.”

Dickey responded on May 26.

“The mayor has publicly stated his information has been submitted. Therefore, I don’t understand the delay,” Dickey wrote. “I only requested data from the Mayor, so I am unsure of “all devices” you reference. The information you’re requesting has nothing to do with the Town or you complying with the FOIA request. Let me know when to expect a full response.”

Black replied on May 26, that, “in order to waive the $500 per device charge, we negotiated a bulk rate for all of the devices. We are unable to process until the vendor receives all the devices. On email it is pulled and being reviewed,” Black wrote. “We may be able to get you the email before the texts.”

Dickey pointed out that, “Notably, the Town remarkably was able to timely respond to the County Chronicle’s April 29, 2021 FOIA request as confirmed through the newspaper’s June 17, 2021 article.”

The Freedom of Information Act provides that any person has a right to inspect or copy any public record of a public body, except as otherwise provided by state statute 30-4-40. The statute also provides that a S.C. public body in receipt of written FOIA request, “shall within ten days (except Saturdays, Sundays and legal public holidays) of the receipt of any request notify the person making each request of its determination and the reasons thereof.”

In the complaint, Dickey stated that, “If the request is granted, the public body must, no later than thirty calendar days from the date on which the final determination was provided, furnish the requestor with records.”

The June 28 complaint states that MPA has not been provided any of the requested records, all of which were due May 24, 2021.

In the complaint, MPA asks the Court to declare that the Town of Blythewood violated the FOIA in failing to maintain public records and in failing to produce records in response to a request. Dickey is also asking the Court to require the Town to immediately respond and produce the responsive documents as required by law.

The complaint also asks for “attorney fees and costs incurred by MPA in bringing this action and prosecuting it.”

On July 9, Black emailed the responsive documents to both MPA and The Voice. Those sent to The Voice included 1,886 documents, a very large portion of which are documents that make no mention of MPA, (i.e. a notice that the Board of Zoning Appeals will not meet, copies of months and months of the agendas and agenda packets for all town board and committee meetings, notice of events at Blythewood High School, information about funding Movies in the Park, etc.) Most of the documents are duplicated, some as many as four or five times. The 1,886 documents are in no particular order, and it is not discernable who many of the texts messages are from or to.

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