Anderson County and its former administrator Joey Preston will soon be challenged to condense a decade's worth of controversy over his $1.1 million severance package into arguments that lawyers have just minutes to present to South Carolina's highest court.
The South Carolina Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the severance-pay case Feb. 20 in Columbia, according to an electronic case roster published on the state Judicial Department's website.
The scheduling comes after a Dec. 28 Independent Mail article that examined the case and how Anderson County and Preston, together, have spent at least $4 million on the court battle without reaching a final outcome.
County officials are still seeking to nullify Preston's November 2008 contract buyout while he is trying to hold onto it and recover the legal fees he has paid in the fight to keep it.
Preston, 55, is now an administrator in Bamberg County, but he still lives and owns a home in Anderson.
It is too early to know whether the promise of a day in court will bring the opposing sides to the table to discuss settling the case.
"I'm always willing to listen," Anderson County Council Chairman Tommy Dunn said Monday. "If there is any talk of a settlement, it's going to have to start with Mr. Preston's lawyers.
"I can tell you it is about time for this thing to be heard in court," Dunn said. "That's well overdue. But who knows anymore how long it could go on after that? It could be months."
Vote on severance package a key issue
On Nov. 18, 2008, the Anderson County Council revised its meeting agenda and voted 5-2 to approve a severance package for Preston that included cash, $355,849 in state retirement credits and a GMC Yukon that he drove on the job.
Several new council members took office in January 2009, and soon thereafter, the county sued Preston to try to have the severance rescinded.
A decade later, that case is bound for the state Supreme Court.
Judge Roger Couch, who presided over a civil trial of the case in the fall of 2012, said then that the 2008 vote on the pay package was a key issue in the case.
Couch ruled in May 2013 that four of seven council members who voted on Preston's pay package — including the two who opposed it — should not have voted because they had various conflicts of interest. Throwing out those four votes, Preston's severance pay would be approved on a 3-0 vote, Couch said.
The county appealed Couch's decision that favored Preston.
Four years later, in May 2017, the South Carolina Court of Appeals sided with Anderson County.
The appeals court found that disqualifying four of the seven council members from voting on the severance agreement "destroyed the quorum necessary for conducting valid business.” Thus, the appeals court declared Preston's severance agreement "null and void."
The oral arguments scheduled for February are a result of the state Supreme Court agreeing to review the case.
Neither Preston attorney Lane Davis nor Ted Gentry, an attorney for the county in this case, returned calls seeking comment about the Supreme Court scheduling Monday.
In response to questions from the Independent Mail last month, Preston said he blames the Anderson County Council for pursuing a “retaliatory dispute” that continues to “fracture and negatively affect our community.”
“Their lawsuit made it difficult for me to find work for three-and-a-half years and caused distress to me and my family,” Preston said.
After a decade of legal wrangling, only two Anderson County Council members who voted to sue Preston are still in their elected positions: Dunn and Cindy Wilson.
In a November interview with the Independent Mail, Wilson said there are important principles at stake in this case.
“It is not just a matter of getting the money back. It is a matter of there being consequences,” she said. “Because if we don’t have accountability and consequences for bad actions, we’re only going to be repeating it.”