When will the MPA legal files be made available to public?

BLYTHEWOOD – More than four months have passed since Mayor Sloan Griffin fired Attorney Shannon Burnett’s law firm as well as David Black and several other attorneys with Maynard Nexsen’s law firm. Both law firms represented the Town of Blythewood in two MPA Strategies-related lawsuits and were asked by Griffin to turn their MPA files over to the Town.

According to Griffin, Black has never turned his files over to the Town. Burnett has, but her files have never been released to the public.

The Town’s only release of MPA information to the public was made in a press conference on Dec. 11, 2023. Griffin released the amount – without invoices – the Town paid out in a little over two years for attorney fees for the two lawsuits.

Shannon Burnett – $238,753.75

Nexsen Pruet –       $209,287.07

Maynard Nexsen – $104,800.45

Total:                        $552,841.36

Unpaid Invoices:    $141,633.09

Grand Total:            $694,474.35

The two cases were settled in MPA’s favor on Dec. 31, 2023, with a payout of $36,000, which covered MPA’s attorney’s fees for the FOI lawsuit.

The Promise of Transparency

During his run for mayor last fall, Griffin campaigned on transparency, saying “hiding behind attorneys would end;” that his “transparency policy will allow for a no-notice request to review all books at no cost to you daily.”

He promised to open the MPA legal files and post them on the Town’s website for all to see; to release the “evidence” that Black and former Mayor Bryan Franklin have repeatedly said is damning to MPA Strategies and Ashley Hunter as well as to Councilman Donald Brock, The Voice newspaper, and its publisher, all of whom Black, Franklin and Councilman Rich McKenrick have made reference to as being Hunter’s co-conspirators.

“From Day One, the books and doors of town hall are going to be open to the citizens,” Griffin wrote in his candidate profile. “I assure you there will be no more dark mysteries in this town hall.”

To date, however, none of the MPA files, other than the total amounts paid out for attorney’s fees, have been made available to the public.

Maynard Nexsen’s Files

After Black was fired by the Town on Dec. 11, he has so far refused to turn over Maynard Nexsen’s MPA files to the Town, to whom they belong, according to Griffin.

“Black was to turn the MPA files over to the Town’s attorney of record, Pete Balthazor,” Griffin said. “Instead, without the Town’s permission, Black said he is turning the files over to Attorney Andrew Lindemann, who is not the Town’s attorney of record.

“We don’t know if he has actually turned them over to Mr. Lindemann or not,” Griffin told The Voice on Wednesday, April 23. “I’m trying to get those records.”

Lindeman is defending the Town in a defamation lawsuit filed by MPA against former Mayor Bryan Franklin. Attorney David Leon Morrison is defending Franklin in the same lawsuit. Both Lindemann and Morrison are being paid by the Town’s municipal insurance company – not by the Town – and neither Lindemann nor Morrison is the attorney of record for the Town, according to Griffin.

In a letter to the Town, dated Jan 24, 2024, Black stated that his firm was in the process of compiling the litigation materials to turn over to Mr. Lindemann and/or Mr. Balthazor, “But Mr. Balthazor has never received those files,” Griffin said.

On March 5, Black emailed Griffin all outstanding invoices – in the amount of $141,622.09 – owed by the Town to Maynard Nexsen for attorneys’ legal services.

“…we expect to be paid promptly and in full for our work in the MPA lawsuits …through and until the date of the Mayor’s stop work directive on Dec. 11, [2023],” Black wrote.

“But he has not sent us the MPA files,” Griffin said. “Only the unpaid invoices.”

That sets up a conundrum for the Town.

Griffin said he is not going to pay the invoices until Black turns over the MPA files in their entirety.

Shannon Burnett’s MPA Files

In the meantime, Burnett turned her MPA files and invoices over to Town Hall three months ago, according to Griffin, but he has not yet made them available to the public. Griffin told The Voice that he, instead, turned Burnett’s files over to Laney, Pope & Riley law firm to be “categorized.” That is the law firm Balthazor is associated with.

Griffin said neither he nor any of the council members looked at the content of Burnett’s files before they were handed over to Laney, Pope & Riley.

Griffin said he doesn’t know when Laney Pope and Riley will finish categorizing the files or how much the firm is charging to categorize them. He said the Town has not yet been billed for that work.

On March 4, 2024 – almost two months after Burnett turned her MPA files over to Town Hall – The Voice submitted a Freedom of Information request to Griffin for Burnett’s files, with copies to Balthazor and Mayor Pro Tem Donald Brock.

Balthazor responded to that FOI on the tenth business day after receipt of the FOI, the legal deadline for the Town’s first response to the FOI.

“Upon initial review of the request, it appears that the records requested would be entitled to an exemption or a privilege preventing their disclosure to the public,” Balthazor wrote. “The Town has not waived, and is asserting, the attorney-client privilege concerning any documents from current or former counsel for the Town. The Town will provide you with any records that are not privileged or are non-exempt within thirty (30) days of the date of this letter.

After the next 30 days came and went without a response from Balthazor or anyone else from Town Hall, The Voice sent an email reminding Griffin that the due date (April 17) for the response had passed. Griffin responded with an automated email that said he would respond as soon as possible.

Balthazor saw The Voice’s publisher on April 19 at a council budget meeting, and voluntarily acknowledged that he had not responded to The Voice’s FOI request, adding that it could be another two to three weeks before he could get to it.

Asked if he would be sending Burnett’s documents at all, Balthazor said he didn’t know since those documents are attorney-client privileged. He said he would speak to the mayor about it when he had the chance.

“Foot dragging is a time honored practice of public bodies in response to records requests,” said Media Attorney Jay Bender who represents the S.C. Press Association. “While there is an attorney-client privilege, it belongs exclusively to the Town [not the attorney]. The Town could waive the privilege and any other possible exemption from mandatory disclosure, and make the records available immediately,” Bender said.

In Blythewood, the mayor can, himself, make those records public without the vote of council. During the Nov. 23, 2023, town council meeting, council voted (just as the previous council had voted) to give the mayor the authority to make all decisions for the town, in regard to the MPA lawsuits.

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