News Analysis: The Voice answers Franklin’s scathing press release

BLYTHEWOOD – On Saturday, Mayor Bryan Franklin issued a rebuttal to a story that appeared in The Voice on Oct. 26, 2023, titled, ‘Franklin continues to hide Town’s expenses for MPA lawsuits’ with the following subtitle: ‘Town’s legal expenses could be approaching $800,000.’

The story recounts how the Town has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last almost three years on two lawsuits and a countersuit involving marketing firm MPA Strategies, The Town, and Franklin.


But, for some reason, the Town will not release how much money it has spent defending those lawsuits. 

Councilman Eddie Baughman signs checks related to the suits, so he would know something about how much has been spent and who it is being paid to. Franklin has been given the power through a vote by the council majority to handle all MPA/Town legal matters, including filing lawsuits. But he and Baughman do not share their information about the Town’s legal expenses, not even with the other council members, according to the members.

The issue began when Franklin and Baughman lost a 3-2 vote to hire a marketing firm for the Town in February, 2021. Councilman Sloan Griffin, Larry Griffin and Donald Brock voted to hire MPA Strategies, a firm that represents several other towns in South Carolina. Franklin and Baughman said they wanted to hire the Blythewood Chamber to do the Town’s marketing. 

Hurt feelings over the vote, rumors and lawsuits have ensued. Franklin and Attorney David Black have publicly and increasingly accused The Voice’s publisher, Brock and now Franklin’s mayoral opponent, Sloan Griffin, of somehow co-conspiring with MPA CEO Ashley Hunter to defraud the Town.

In a press release issued earlier this week and in another piece he posted on Facebook yesterday, Franklin outlines what he calls false information printed in the Oct. 26 story in The Voice.

Here, The Voice will address accusations made in the press release, with Franklin’s comments printed in bold. The story he complains about can be read here.

Franklin writes: “This headline is intentionally misleading and patently false …,” referring to the $800,000.

Information about how much the Town is spending on outside legal expenses has been written about previously in The Voice, and the amounts spent were taken directly from the town’s budget. According to budget information on the Town’s website, it spent $152,500 on outside legal expenses in FY 2021-22 and $199,885 in FY 2022-23, well over $300,000. Included in those amounts is $89,445.43 in specific MPA legal expenses that are available on the Town’s Account Quick-Report for January – December 2021 and provided to The Voice last year by Black.

In an FOI (Freedom of Information) response received by The Voice (from the Town) on Oct. 10, 2023, Black wrote: “…as you are aware, the Town has spent more than $200,000 defending Ms. Hunter’s baseless lawsuits.” But neither Franklin, Baughman nor the attorneys will say how much more.

In addition to that, the legal budget has been increased to $500,000 for this current fiscal year alone. And the Town has already spent 36.62% ($183,083.03) of that in the first three months of this fiscal year (July, August, and September) for an actual total of $536,516.35 spent on outside legal since the MPA/Town legal expenses began accumulating in the spring of 2021.

Based on the numbers above, The Voice estimates $800,000, but the Town will not release the actual expenses. However $800,000 is not an unrealistic number considering the on-going legal proceedings since early 2021 with sometimes as many as five high-end attorneys billing the Town.

Franklin writes: “Ball says ‘Franklin continues to prohibit the Town’s attorneys from revealing to the public, the media, and even some town council members, how much the town has spent.’ This is also false. I have never once directed any town attorney to withhold FOI’ed information…”

The issue is not whether Franklin directed the attorneys to withhold the information. The issue is that he will not release the information to the public, to council members or to the media. And he has been given the authority to do so by a council majority vote (see more below).

An Attorney General’s opinion says elected officials are entitled to review financial documents itemizing town legal expenses, according to the S.C. Attorney General’s Office in a June 19 opinion.

“It is this Office’s opinion that an elected official has the right to access financial documents possessed by the governmental entity that he or she is elected to oversee,” the opinion states.

“It is illegal for the Town to withhold the attorney fee agreement entirely as that does not allow the residents of Blythewood to understand any better how their taxpayer funds are being spent,” said Taylor Smith, who represents the S. C. Press Association.

“Assuming these invoices even do have such confidential information, the state’s open records laws (FOIA) allow redaction of that info, not refusal to release the entire record,” Smith said.

Franklin writes: “Ball says in the story that ‘Franklin has the authority – given by council – to reveal how much the Town has spent on MPA legal costs. He has so far chosen not to reveal those costs to the public and even to some of his council members. This statement is also false. I do not have the authority to override the legal opines of town attorneys, nor can I put the town at risk by acting in such a way that revealing attorney-client privileged information would do harm to our citizens.”

According to a motion made by Town Councilman Rich McKenrick and passed by the council majority on May 12, 2022, council authorized Franklin to take any action whatsoever in regard to the Town’s legal proceedings with MPA and others, including The Voice.

That motion, approved by council, reads in full: “This council affirms and approves all actions taken on behalf of the Town by the mayor, Carroll Williamson, and on behalf of the Town by its attorney Shannon Burnett and Nexsen Pruet Law Firm regarding all matters related to MPA Strategies, Ashley Hunter, State and Frink, Donald Brock, The Voice, and Barbara Ball et al and that such representation by and hiring of such attorneys is hereby reaffirmed and shall continue until further resolutions are made including any claims and counter claims filed, answered, appealed or any ancillary issues.”

As for Franklin’s reference to attorney-client privileged information, Jay Bender, a media law attorney representing the SC Press Association said, “I think that claiming that how much a local government is paying an attorney is subject to attorney-client privilege is total hogwash. There might be elements of the claim regarding strategy or witness identification that can be redacted, but how much is being spent by the Town of Blythewood is public information.”

Franklin writes: “Ms. Ball goes on to list ‘the four main attorneys who represent the Town and Franklin.’ Another known falsehood. The only attorney who has been retained to represent me in an individual capacity by the town’s insurer is David Morrison.”

As was stated in The Voice’s story, David Morrison does represent Franklin, but Maynard Nexsen’s Attorney David Black represents both the Town and Bryan Franklin according to the Richland County Public Index. Also, there are now five attorneys not four being paid by the Town for MPA legal matters. Alexandra Austin now also represents the Town.

Franklin writes: “…she (Ball) leaves out the known fact that I along with the town administrator acted in good faith at the outset of this case and spent an entire day attempting to amicably reach an agreement even though the town has done nothing wrong that I have seen or been advised of. The parties could not agree on a settlement.”

That information was not left out of the story. The story included it in this sentence: “In a Facebook comment on Tuesday of this week, Franklin said he has, from the beginning, been ready to settle the legal matters with MPA.” 

Franklin writes: “Ms. Ball writes that, ‘[Attorney Shannon] Burnett also works on the MPA/Town legal matters for the Town and Franklin’ …This too is false. Ms. Burnett has never worked for me in any individual capacity. She was formerly the Town attorney and has been retained to represent the Town in the MPA cases.”

As Franklin’s protests attempt to deflect from what the story is about, it may also be a case of splitting hairs as to whether Burnett is working on both the Town’s defense and Franklin’s. 

Either way, the point of the story is not whose defense Burnett is working on, but why Franklin or the Town’s legal team won’t reveal how much the Town has paid the attorneys (including Burnett) for their work on the MPA/Town/Franklin cases.

There are numerous other accusations and complaints made by Franklin in this and other emails and postings he has made recently – too numerous to address here – such as this one that was released by him this week: 

Franklin writes: “Judge Clifton Newman has sanctioned MPA and Ms. Hunter for destruction of evidence. As part of the sanction, the Court has ruled that Ashley Hunter will owe the Town its substantial litigation discovery costs. You (Ball) have still not shared with your readers this sanction from the court transcript and have not reported on it.”

The Voice absolutely did report on the hearing and on what the judge said about sanctioning in a story titled, ‘Council may raise FY 2023 legal fees budget to $500,000,’ in the Sept. 14, 2023 issue of The Voice.

However, Judge Newman did not sanction Ms. Hunter. He said some kind of sanctioning for spoliation (destruction of evidence) was warranted, but Newman left it up to the trial judge to eventually determine the facts and to make a decision concerning sanctions.

“It’s a unique situation,” Paul Porter, Ashley Hunter’s attorney said. “Ashley had a pre-existing retention policy for her text messages, so she unequivocally denies that she destroyed any evidence and believes no relevant discernable documents were destroyed.”

Franklin ends his press release “demanding that Ms. Ball and The Voice retract the known falsehoods” in The Voice story.

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