The South Carolina Supreme Court has overturned former Anderson County Administrator Joey Preston's $1.1 million severance agreement from 2008, giving the county a major victory in a $4 million legal battle that has raged for a decade.
The decision, made public Wednesday and written by Chief Justice Donald Beatty, says the county is entitled to recover cash that was paid out to Preston as part of the severance agreement, plus the value of the 2006 GMC Yukon that Preston drove on the job and got as part of his exit deal.
The county cannot recover $355,848 in state retirement credits that the county paid on Preston's behalf when he left.
Leaving out the value of the retirement credits, Preston may stand to owe the county at least $784,000.
This week's ruling does not address the recovery of court costs. Anderson County has spent at least $3 million on investigating and suing Preston and on other related cases, including defending its decision to probe the activities of the former administrator.
According to figures provided by the county's finance division Thursday, the last invoice that the county paid in the case was from March and totaled $23,316. The county will be able to recover some legal expenses from a state insurance fund when the case ends, but finance manager Rita Davis said county officials don't yet know how much can be recovered that way.
Preston, who still lives in Anderson but is the administrator in Bamberg County, did not immediately answer a phone call or an email Wednesday night and did not respond to a follow-up request for comment Thursday.
County officials had mixed reactions to the milestone ruling.
"Naturally, I'm very happy with the court's ruling," Anderson County Council Chairman Tommy Dunn said Wednesday night. "I'm also happy that, I hope, it's over with. It never should have taken this long. I'm glad for the citizens of Anderson County, and I hope this ruling will set a precedent and send a message to other councils that you can't circumvent the will of the people. Now, I just hope we can all move on."
A key finding in the Supreme Court's decision revolved around whether a quorum existed on Nov. 18, 2008, the night Preston's severance package was approved at a County Council meeting.
Preston has said he realized his tenure in Anderson County was about to end as three newly elected council members — Dunn, Tom Allen and Eddie Moore — were preparing to take office.
That night, the lame-duck council revised its meeting agenda and voted 5-2 to approve a severance for Preston that included cash, state retirement credits and the Yukon. The value of the deal amounted to almost 6.5 times Preston's annual salary of $170,000.
Councilwoman Cindy Wilson, who joined former Councilman Bob Waldrep in voting against the severance deal, said in an interview last year that she didn’t have an opportunity to review the agreement at the meeting.
“They wouldn’t allow us the time to read,” she said.
Reached Thursday morning, Wilson said it took 10 years to get this ruling.
“All I can say is that I am very grateful that the Supreme Court found in favor of the county and it has taken a long time to get to this point, and hopefully there will be consequences for bad behavior.”
Councilwoman Gracie Floyd, the council's lone Democrat and the only person left on it who favored Preston's severance, said she is still working to review this week's ruling.
"It's terrible," she said.
The county began its effort to overturn Preston's severance deal in 2009, soon after Dunn, Allen and Moore took office.
Preston claimed that the county’s vendetta against him led to his arrest on a road near Townville in 2010. A DUI charge against Preston was dropped shortly thereafter.
The former administrator also had to contend with the disclosure of his eight-year affair with a woman who worked for the county. The woman described spending time with Preston at Cater's Lake in Anderson and listening to music from James Bond movies with him. Judge Roger Couch ultimately excluded the testimony from consideration, deeming it irrelevant to the case.
In his May 2013 ruling, Couch analyzed each council member's vote on Preston's severance agreement. He threw out the dissenting votes of Wilson and Waldrep because they "possessed direct financial interests in the severance-agreement vote” stemming from their personal legal battles with Preston. Couch also threw out votes cast in favor of the agreement by Ron Wilson and Michael Thompson because the judge said they stood to benefit from the agreement's approval. Throwing out four votes, Couch found that the severance was approved 3-0 and was valid.
But in his 12-page ruling, Chief Justice Beatty said that, based on county rules, at least four of the seven council members were needed for the severance agreement to come to a vote. Thus, Beatty said, throwing out votes meant the 2008 council acted "without the quorum necessary for taking valid action" making the severance agreement "null and void."
Beatty also cited the lack of a quorum as the reason for vacating a 2017 ruling from the South Carolina Court of Appeals in the Preston case. Beatty said the panel that made that ruling, which also called for overturning Preston's severance deal, consisted of only two judges instead of the required three.
A circuit court judge will determine precisely how much Preston owes Anderson County, according to the Supreme Court ruling.
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