Originally created 09/17/99

Failure to release reports sparks suit



AIKEN -- A local union organizer is suing Aiken County and Sheriff Howard Sellers for not responding promptly to a Freedom of Information request filed more than a month ago.

Gary E. McClain, 45, of Jackson, attempted to obtain copies of incident reports and other documentation generated as a result of his involuntary, two-week commitment to a Columbia mental institution. The suit was filed Wednesday in the Aiken County Court of Common Pleas.

Official documents state that Mr. McClain filed the request Aug. 6, and by South Carolina law, Sheriff Sellers had 15 days, excluding holidays and weekends, to comply. As of late Thursday, he had not responded.

Because of the pending lawsuit, the sheriff's office will not comment, Lt. Michael Frank said Thursday.

Mr. McClain was taken into custody by the sheriff's office while on his way to work July 29. He was taken to Aiken Regional Medical Centers for evaluation. Doctors subsequently committed him, against his will, to Charter Rivers Hospital for 14 days. He was confined there until Aug. 11, when a probate judge released him because a private psychiatrist found no symptoms of mental illness.

Mr. McClain believes he was confined to the psychiatric facility for a pro-union stance at Tenneco Packaging, where he has worked for 17 years. He believes his confinement was the company's way of getting him out of the plant.

He is asking the court to issue a judgment mandating that the documents he requested be issued. In addition, he wants the county to pay for the cost of copying the documents and requests the court to award "reasonable" attorney's fees.

The county and the sheriff have 30 days to respond to the suit.

During a recent meeting with company officials, Mr. McClain campaigned for unionization by the International Union of Operating Engineers.

After the meeting, Tenneco officials said, they called the sheriff's office about safety concerns regarding Mr. McClain. Sheriff's Maj. Jody Rowland said his agency took the company's complaint and ran a computer check on Mr. McClain, finding an outstanding warrant from 1995 for discharging a firearm in the direction of his neighbor's house.

Instead of serving the warrant, the sheriff's office took Mr. McClain to the hospital for a mental evaluation.

A 1995 incident report obtained by the The Augusta Chronicle stated that a sheriff's deputy investigated the complaint against Mr. McClain and concluded it was "unfounded."

Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.