Columbia County attorney reveals he helped close deal on Magnolia Trace

Columbia County’s attorney confirmed Tuesday that he had been paid to work as the closing attorney on a Martinez land deal on which an affordable housing development is under construction, but denied there was any conflict of interest.

In a brief interview after Tuesday’s Columbia County Commission meeting, county attorney Doug Batchelor said he worked as the closing attorney for Affordable Equity Partners, the purchaser of the Magnolia Trace property, during the closing of the firm’s purchase of the land last fall.

“I had nothing to do with the contract,” Batchelor said, “I just administered the closing.”

The contract for the purchase had already been worked out before he got involved, he said.

Batchelor said he previously had helped the company “about two years ago” on the purchase of land in McDuffie County, and said he assumed that’s why the Missouri company contacted him again for another purchase in the area.

He said there was “absolutely not” any conflict between working for the county as its attorney and for the developer of the project.

“We were just closing a piece of real estate, which we do each day,” Batchelor said.

He said he couldn’t recall whether he disclosed his previous work for the company on the McDuffie County deal when he asked Commission Chairman Ron Cross and District 2 Commissioner Trey Allen to meet in his office with an AEP representative to hear a pitch in June 2010 on the affordable housing development.

The closing of that land deal occurred more than a year later, in September 2011.

“I don’t know when I could have had a conflict,” Batchelor said.

County Administrator Scott Johnson said a check of the county’s records shows Batchelor did not bill the county for the meeting between Cross, Allen and AEP, and thus was not serving on the county’s behalf during that meeting.

The revelation that Batchelor also has worked for AEP comes about five weeks after county commissioners voted to hire an outside attorney to seek a means to “interrupt” construction of the 15-acre development featuring 50 single-family rental homes. Later, Savannah, Ga., lawyer Patrick T. O’Connor wrote to Columbia County officials that they had no legal recourse to stop the project.

Cross, during Tuesday’s commission meeting, announced those findings and said “as far as our action, this is the end of it.”

In June 2010, after Cross and Allen met with AEP representatives, commissioners approved a resolution favoring “affordable housing.” The company then sent that resolution as part of an application to the state Department of Community Affairs seeking tax credits from the DCA to build low-cost rental homes.

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