Law forces Dillon councilman from office, loophole allows him to run again

(Washington portrait from cityofdillonsc.us)

DILLON, SC (WBTW) – District 1 of Dillon has a special election coming up after James “Bobie” Washington vacated the seat earlier this year, and Washington is running to fill the very seat he stepped down from.

James “Bobie” Washington (source: cityofdillonsc.us)

Washington has served on Dillon city council since 1999, being re-elected four times over those 18 years, but in March of this year he resigned. His notice didn’t include a reason. He sent a one-line note to the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. It was dated March 16, 2017 and read, “Please accept this as my letter of resignation from Dillon City Council effective immediately.”
Filing for the special election to fill the city council seat closed on April 27. Washington, Billy “Coach” Odom and Jerry McLain filed to run as candidates.

A few days after filing closed, Washington told News13 over the phone that he would consult his attorney before giving an official comment. Washington never called back or answered follow-up phone calls. He was not home when News13 attempted an in-person visit.

News13 learned Washington’s resignation likely came as a result of a guilty plea he entered in September of 2016 on gambling charges. Those charges date back to November 2014 when News13 reported Washington and ten others were arrested in a SLED investigation that began months earlier.

In July 2016, a Dillon County grand jury indicted Washington on two gambling charges – one from May 16, 2014 and the other from September 18, 2014. The indictment documents show Washington was accused of selling tickets for a betting pool, with the winner to be determined by the outcome of professional sports games.

At the time of his guilty plea in September of 2016, a judge sentenced Washington to a year of probation for the gambling convictions.

The gambling charges are misdemeanors. Usually elected officials can stay in office even when convicted of misdemeanors, but there is a particular part of South Carolina’s constitution about public officials convicted of gambling.

Article XVII, Section 8, is titled “Officers gambling and betting.” It reads as follows:

“It shall be unlawful for any person holding an office of honor, trust or profit to engage in gambling or betting on games of chance; and any such officer, upon conviction thereof, shall become thereby disqualified from the further exercise of the functions of his office, and the office of said person shall become vacant, as in the case of resignation or death.”

“It says while the person is holding the office if they engage in the conduct, which is gambling, then the office has to become vacant because they are disqualified from serving,” explained Elise Crosby, the President of the S.C. Municipal Attorneys Association.
Crosby does not represent Dillon or anyone involved in Washington’s case. She says article XVII Section 8 of the state constitution seems pretty clear that an elected official convicted of gambling becomes disqualified, but it is not clear if that section speaks to whether an official can hold office again.

Only the governor of South Carolina can actually enforce removing a public official from office in the state. Washington remained in office after his plea and conviction in September of 2016. He was still paid the standard city council salary of $300 a month until he resigned in March of 2017. City Manager Glen Wagner pointed out the city does not have the authority to remove anyone from office.

Washington’s resignation in March did come before any definitive action from the Governor’s office, said Brian Symmes, spokesman for Henry McMaster. Symmes also served as Nikki Haley’s spokesman. Nonetheless, Washington filed to run for the seat he vacated on April 17 – just a month after he resigned.

“If this were challenged ultimately somebody on the bench – a judge – would be the ultimate interpreter of this section,” Crosby said, referring to Article XVII, Section 8.
However, no one has challenged Washington’s candidacy. If Dillon city leaders sought advice from the city attorney, that is a private legal matter.

People in Dillon seem to have varying amounts of knowledge about why Washington stepped down. Many like Metta Fields said they would base their votes on overall feelings about the candidates, not Washington’s legal issues. Fields supports her neighbor Billy Odom because she thinks he will be good for the community. She said he and his family have delivered lots of help and support since her husband died.

“That (gambling conviction) doesn’t weigh my decision,” Fields said. “My decision is going to go, when somebody can help me when I’m down I think that’s the way I’m going to go.”

Angela McKenzie said she supports her neighbor Washington. She grew up in Dillon, moved away, but has been back in the city since 1995.

“I’m a big supporter of him because he is more like a big brother to me, not just to me but to the whole community here, our whole street,” McKenzie said. “They’re trying to find anything to get somebody that’s doing good out of office, and that perturbs me. It really actually makes me sick.”
Ultimately, it appears voters will get the final say on whether Washington’s gambling conviction should cost him his city council seat. The special election for District 1 is scheduled for Tuesday, June 13. It will cost the city an estimated $800.

“When you do things you have to pay the price, and if it was a loophole – that’s what it sounds like – a loophole that he fell through, then he’s welcome to run again,” Fields said about Washington’s candidacy. “I don’t feel either way about it,” said Fields.
The two candidates running against Washington – Billy Odom and Jerry McLain – also declined to comment for this story.