Originally created 02/21/01

Ham exam criticized by panelist



AIKEN - Although the local solicitor says nobody committed a crime in Aiken County Council's holiday ham giveaway, one member says he won't stop until he has all the answers.

Councilman Willar Hightower wants to know why the county bought more Christmas meat than it needed for employee bonuses, and he wants to know what led 2nd Circuit Solicitor Barbara Morgan to close the case without prosecuting anyone.

Mr. Hightower asked his colleagues Tuesday to push the State Law Enforcement Division to release its report on the controversial investigation because "citizens are demanding an accounting of the distribution of hams." The council denied his request by a 5-2 vote, saying it was a "done issue."

"I'm satisfied that the investigation already conducted is sufficient," said councilman Chuck Smith, who was not a member when the allegations surfaced.

Mr. Hightower and councilman Phil Napier were outnumbered by Chairman Ronnie Young and members LaWana McKenzie, Joel Randall, Rick Osbon and Mr. Smith. Council members Kathy Rawls and Susan Giddings were not present to vote because of personal reasons.

SLED launched an investigation into allegations of "official misconduct" by three members of County Council in November. The probe stems from an anonymous letter accusing Mr. Young, Mrs. McKenzie and Mr. Randall of trading holiday hams and turkeys - bought with public money - for political influence, favors and votes.

Although the solicitor has sent a letter to SLED stating she found no criminal wrongdoing, the agency has not officially closed the investigation, spokeswoman Mary Perry said Tuesday. She said she expects the case to wrap up by the end of the week. State officials say they won't release details of the case to the public until it is officially closed.

Mr. Hightower, who recently met with Ms. Morgan to inquire about her findings, said the solicitor would not give him copies from the investigation that she released to local papers under the Freedom of Information Act.

"She wouldn't let me look at a thing," Mr. Hightower said. "She wouldn't even give me a plain sheet of paper that I might use to write a letter to her requesting the information under the Freedom of Information Act."

Mr. Hightower said Ms. Morgan usually briefs the council on the outcome of any investigation requested by its members.

"I don't know why she's handling this differently," he said. "The whole thing is a mystery to me. I just want to see the report and how she came to that conclusion, that's all. The whole thing stinks, to be perfectly honest."

Ms. Morgan did not return phone messages left at her office Tuesday.

Mr. Hightower said there are still a lot of questions that deserve answers.

"I want to know what happened to all the hams," he said. "I want to see what (the solicitor) saw and see if I come up with a different conclusion and what I can do from there."

The councilman said a resolution to the holiday ham giveaway is necessary for the council to move on.

"We have so many problems to deal with, like a shortage of money, cars tearing up and roads that need to be paved," Mr. Hightower said. "We need to get on with the real business of the county. I hope we can go ahead and do that. As long as this thing hangs over, it's going to continue to divide the council."

Reach Katie Throne at (803) 279-6895.