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Suspended over past felonies, SC councilman used taxpayer funds

By Avery G. Wilks and Travis Jenkins

awilks@postandcourier.com

tjenkins@onlinechester.com

 EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced in collaboration with The News & Reporter of Chester, an Uncovered partner.

“Uncovered” is creating a series of investigative articles to look at how the lack of watchdog journalism in communities, combined with weak ethics laws, is a perfect storm for corruption in South Carolina. The stories are written by the Post and Courier of Charleston’s Watchdog and Public Service Team and are being reprinted in The Advertiser and here in partnership with that newspaper and affiliated website.

CHESTER — In South Carolina, elected officials who are suspended from office aren’t supposed to be paid for the jobs they have been barred from doing.

But that’s precisely what happened in Chester, a former textile town where a legacy of corruption and mismanagement has left city finances in shambles and eroded local residents’ trust in government.

In this city of 5,400 an hour north of Columbia on Interstate 77, the scion of an influential Chester family won a seat on City Council even though his criminal past should have barred him from seeking public office.

Months later, a watchdog group discovered the more than two dozen felony forgery convictions on William King’s record and filed a lawsuit that saw him suspended — and ultimately removed — from his council seat.

Yet King continued to help himself to taxpayer money, collecting nearly $10,000 in pay and charging thousands more for his travel and lodging during the 21 months he was barred from serving on City Council.

Taxpayers were unwittingly made to stuff King’s pockets even as the city struggled to make payroll. Days before King flew out to San Antonio for a four-day conference that cost taxpayers more than $2,000, City Council discussed Chester’s ”cash flow problems” and debated layoffs and other cost-cutting measures.

King’s spending, revealed here for the first time by The Post and Courier and Chester News and Reporter, remains unexplained by the City Council that enabled it. All but one council member dodged or declined requests for comment. King did not respond to multiple messages and calls.

In an emailed statement to the newspapers, Chester City Administrator Stephanie Jackson noted that City Council never voted to stop the flow of public dollars to King while he was barred from office.

She said the city didn’t seek the guidance of the S.C. Attorney General’s Office, which would have advised the city not to pay King. City Council did seek legal advice about the matter, Jackson wrote. But she would not share that advice with the newspapers, calling it “privileged and confidential.”

The two newspapers discovered the improper spending as part of The Post and Courier’s Uncovered series, a year-long investigation into misconduct and abuses of power in small-town South Carolina. The cases so far, including King’s, show how public officials across the state have indulged themselves with public money when they thought no one is watching.

King’s case also raises new questions about how South Carolina vets candidates for public office — a system that relies heavily on voters and political opponents to bring issues like these to light in lieu of background checks.

It again calls into question the judgment of local leaders in Chester, where City Council members have spared no expense on their own pay and travel, even as the city’s finances deteriorated. And it comes as another black eye for residents who — in just the past three years — have seen their sheriff and elected county supervisor indicted, and their police chief suspended amid an active criminal investigation.

Reporters examined nearly 700 pages of spending records obtained through open-records requests, studied more than 100 pages of court documents, pored through ethics filings and interviewed more than a dozen people to piece together how King — whose rap sheet includes convictions for forgery, writing fraudulent checks, larceny and swindling — was able to take public office and treat himself to public money.

A glitch in the system

King, 56, comes from a family with longstanding political connections in Chester, a town that fell on hard times when its textile mills closed down and has missed out on South Carolina’s economic growth over the past decade. Even though Chester is just a 45-minute drive from the booming metropolis of Charlotte, most of the buildings in the city’s downtown district are either vacant or occupied by nonprofits that don’t pay taxes.

The city’s population has dropped 4 percent over the past decade. The median household income is $26,330, and Chester’s poverty rate is nearly double the state average.

Just one in 10 residents has a bachelor’s degree, and only about half have broadband internet.

King has deep roots here. His father, Christopher King, was a funeral home director who became Chester’s first Black mayor. His younger brother, John King, served on Chester City Council and then County Council before making the jump to the S.C. House of Representatives, where he has represented York County since 2009.

William King joined the family funeral home business in 1987, according to his April 2018 pardon application.

But he faced a rockier path while following his relatives’ footsteps into politics.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, King struggled with drug addiction and regularly ran afoul of the law, court records show. Pardon documents obtained by The Post and Courier show King was convicted of 74 offenses over a 12-year span, including petit larceny, breach of trust, possession of drug paraphernalia and disorderly conduct.

Many of those crimes were misdemeanors. But at least 27 were felonies, including a trove of forgery convictions in 2004 that, by law, barred King from voting or running for elected office for at least 15 years after he completed his sentence.

That meant King was ineligible when he ran for City Council unsuccessfully in 2015, as well as when he won election in 2017.

In fact, Chester election officials suspected as much. Word of King’s past troubles had swirled around town for years.

When King filed for office, they ran his name through the state’s voter registration database and were surprised at the results. The system indicated King was still allowed to vote, which meant he was also eligible to run for office, officials said.

So they added him to the ballot, assuming he had served his time or received a pardon. Local and state election officials now chalk that up to a technical glitch, though no one ever investigated to determine why King wasn’t flagged in the system.

“I don’t know, myself,” Terry Graham, Chester’s elections director at the time, said in a recent interview.

King didn’t have to pass a background check to get on the ballot. South Carolina law doesn’t require one. Nor does it authorize election officials to run one. All King needed to do was sign an oath swearing he was eligible for office.

That’s the case in many areas of the country, a Post and Courier review found. That means it is often up to opposing candidates, voters and news outlets to dig into the pasts of candidates for office.

In recent years, such searches have yielded concerning results.

In 2014, the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s background check unearthed a 1989 cocaine trafficking conviction for a Danie Beach City Commission candidate who, like King, shouldn’t have been eligible to vote or run for office.

In 2019, the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Penn., found that three candidates for county offices had drunk driving convictions in their backgrounds.

That same year, the Charlotte Observer discovered criminal records, bankruptcies and other financial troubles in the pasts of 10 candidates running for mayor and other city seats.

“The main way this works, generally speaking, is that candidates police themselves,” S.C. State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said. “If there is something on the other side, it’s going to become known because of the political process. That usually brings all these things to light.”

 ‘How did he not know?’

But in Chester, records of King’s criminal past didn’t surface until 10 months after his May 2017 election.

That’s when a local watchdog group, the Chester Citizens for Ethical Government, filed a lawsuit alleging King had lied under oath and illegally assumed office.

The lawsuit, which provided evidence of King’s convictions, gave Chester City Council a golden opportunity to eject King from his seat, a step already taken by other S.C. city councils in similar predicaments.

“You’ve got to have people who are legally qualified for office,” said Howard Duvall, a Columbia City Councilman and 40-year veteran of S.C. politics who served as executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina. “The city should have stepped up immediately and used their authority to remove him.”

Instead, they punted, allowing the legal questions surrounding King to simmer for months.

During that time, he continued to participate in important city decisions, including successfully pushing City Council to hire Jackson, a Chester native with almost no prior municipal experience, as the next city administrator. Jackson later signed off on King’s spending while he was barred from serving.

A hearing on King’s status was delayed until October 2018.

Days before the hearing, King’s application to the state for a pardon was approved. The pardon restored King’s civil rights, including his ability to vote and seek office.

King’s supporters reasoned that Chester voters knew of King’s past and voted for him anyway. They said King had turned his life around and thought he could run for office since he had been eligible to vote.

But at the hearing, that didn’t satisfy Judge Roger Henderson. For the state judge, the central fact remained: King had still been ineligible for office when he ran in 2017.

“How did he not know himself that he was a convicted felon?” Henderson asked during the hearing.

The judge issued a temporary restraining order barring King acting in his capacity as a council member, pending a final ruling on whether King could legally serve.

Records show King didn’t take the message to heart.

Spending while suspended

The first sign King might not comply with the judge’s order came the evening of that hearing.

King arrived late to a Chester City Council meeting and took his usual place on the council dais, as if nothing had changed. He even tagged along when council retreated behind closed doors for an executive session, infuriating critics who knew of King’s suspension.

The Chester Citizens for Ethical Government quickly filed an order of contempt against King, arguing he “intentionally and willfully violated” the judge’s order.

Publicly, King changed course. He continued to attend council meetings, but he spoke only during the public comment periods, when any other citizen could address the panel. He did not sit with other council members or go into executive session.

Yet behind the scenes, King continued to enjoy the financial benefits of his office, records show.

In February 2019, Chester paid $439 for King to attend the Municipal Association’s Legislative Action Day and elected official training in Columbia. That included $175 in registration fees for the two-day event and $64 in mileage for King’s hour-long drive to the state capital.

Most council members who attended the event saved the city money by driving to Columbia for both days of the event. But King chose to stay overnight at an Embassy Suites in Columbia, charging taxpayers nearly $200 for his room.

The city also renewed King’s $15 membership with the S.C. Community Development Association, a group of municipal employees and political leaders interested in economic developments.

Months later, in November 2019, King — still barred from serving on City Council — flew with Mayor Wanda Stringfellow and then-Councilman William Killian to the National League of Cities’ four-day City Summit in San Antonio.

There, more than 4,000 city officials from across the country attended educational seminars at the downtown Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, a 10-minute walk from the Alamo. Attendees could network with each other, listen to a “stirring speech” from the rapper Common, dance at a Friday night reception and explore the famous River Walk that cuts through the heart of the city, according to the organization’s summary of the event.

Taxpayers paid more than $2,000 to send King to the conference, where he could pick up skills he never got to use as a councilman. The expenses included $450 for airfare, $560 in registration costs and $810 for his hotel room.

King charged taxpayers nearly $160 for his meals on the trip, including about $29 for four trips to Whataburger and $51 for three breakfasts at IHOP.

He charged the city $59 for his mileage to and from the Charlotte airport, and then also tried to double dip in city funds by charging the taxpayers $20 for gas on the same trip, receipts show.

City staff declined to reimburse King for the $20 gas charge, records show. The city also rejected King’s request that taxpayers cover the $7.29 bottle of Listerine mouthwash he bought during the trip.

 

‘A serious ethical breach’

Chester also continued to pay King his $450 per month salary as if he were still an active member of council, state ethics filings show.

Those payments totaled about $9,450 during King’s 21-month suspension, which ended when a judge ordered King to forfeit his office in July 2020.

The arrangement struck ethics advocates as bizarre and the state Attorney General’s Office as legally inappropriate.

Lynn Teague, vice president of the S.C. League of Women Voters, said the city should have stopped paying King from the moment it learned his past made him ineligible to hold office — months before a judge intervened.

“The city made an extremely bad decision,” Teague said. “It’s clearly a serious ethical breach, not just by the gentleman who had to forfeit his office, but by all of those who had to authorize his travel and pay and training. It’s extremely inappropriate.”

In opinions that are published online, the S.C. Attorney General’s Office has long advised local governments not to pay suspended officials, even if the officials are later reinstated.

Cities also shouldn’t fund suspended officials’ travel and training, as Chester did for King, Attorney General’s Office spokesman Robert Kittle told the newspapers.

Chester leaders would not explain why the city continued to pay King and underwrite his excursions, whether council approved the spending, or if they even knew about it. City Council never discussed King’s pay or travel during open session after his suspension.

It took Jackson 15 days to answer a list of emailed questions the newspapers submitted regarding Chester’s spending. When she did, the city administrator noted Chester continued to pay King until the lawsuit challenging his eligibility was resolved. She did not explain why.

Mayor Stringfellow said she questioned the payments to King when she rejoined City Council in May 2019 but was told the money kept flowing simply because City Council hadn’t voted to stop it.

“I didn’t give it much thought,” she said.

Councilwomen Susan Kovas and Angela Douglas declined to comment. Most others, including King, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Asked who approved King’s spending, former Mayor George Caldwell, who left office in May 2019, replied: “I have no idea.” Then he hung up.

City finances in shambles

King’s spending came at a time Chester could hardly afford to waste taxpayer money.

The city’s finances have been in disarray since the mid-2000s, when Chester started a habit of falling years behind on annual audits.

When those financial inspections were completed, auditors would discover hundreds of thousands of dollars unaccounted for, chaotic record keeping and evidence public money had been misspent.

At times, city officials discovered bank accounts they didn’t know existed. They acknowledged they had no idea how many city credit cards had been handed out to employees and council members.

The city lost $120,000 on a youth health program and $500,000 on a program that provided meals to children during the summer — all because it neglected to fill out paperwork seeking reimbursement for those costs.

Auditors routinely attributed such problems to extreme turnover in critical positions, such as city administrator and city finance director. City Council sometimes left those jobs vacant for months, even years, as problems mounted.

At one point, Mayor Stringfellow stepped in. She took on on some administrator duties for eight months and accepting some $19,500 in pay for the extra work. The arrangement was a clear violation of the S.C. Ethics Act, which prohibits dual office holding. The Ethics Commission fined Stringfellow $500 and ordered the mayor to refund the city what she was paid.

By 2016 and 2017, Chester’s finances had deteriorated so much the city had to go to extraordinary measures just to cover its operating costs. It cashed in nearly $525,000 in certificates of deposit, dipped into $250,000 from two local government investment pool accounts and borrowed heavily from an account that was meant to fund sewer system repairs.

In 2018, the same year King was suspended, the city had just $37,000 in its main bank account — a miniscule sum compared to the $3.3 million held by neighboring Union and the $5.81 million Winnsboro had in the bank.

“We scratch to make every payroll,” then-city finance director Jerry Baker told City Council.

Jackson, the city administrator, offered a similar refrain during a November 2019 council meeting.

“We have cash flow problems,” she said.

At that meeting, City Council again discussed ways to save money. Jackson mentioned that she shopped for office supplies at Walmart or Dollar General, where she could find them cheaper. Stringfellow, who has been the mayor for all but eight years since 1999, asked if Chester had considered a spending freeze and suggested laying off non-essential workers.

Nine days later, Stringfellow, Killian and a still-suspended King boarded a plane bound for the four-day conference in San Antonio, a trip that cost taxpayers more than $5,000.

Sparing no expense

King’s spending while barred from office is just the latest in a string of scandals to befall Chester.

In recent years, Chester residents have seen their sheriff indicted on charges he ordered deputies to work on his barn, used public money to fly his wife to Nevada for a conference and siphoned money from jail accounts for his personal use.

Their elected county administrator was charged with selling meth out of his government car. And the city police chief and two other officers were suspended amid an ongoing State Law Enforcement Division investigation into the police department’s finances.

But trust in government has also been bludgeoned by a steady drip of stories about how Chester City Council members have helped themselves to public money, dating back to the early 2000s, when oversight of their discretionary spending was almost non-existent.

Before going out of town for conferences, each member could withdraw as much as $150 in cash per day for meals. Yet, after pocketing the money, they didn’t have to turn in receipts that proved they spent it appropriately, or spent it at all.

Not all of the council’s nine members partook. But for each who did, that amounted to $600 in unaccountable cash for a typical four-day conference. And that was just the meals. Taxpayers also picked up the tab for council members’ hotel rooms and the pay-per-view movies some ordered to occupy themselves, the Chester News and Reporter previously revealed.

One council member even admitted to gaming the system by carpooling to a conference in a van with three other council members. Then, each of the Chester officials received cash mileage reimbursements as if they had driven separately, the Chester newspaper discovered.

Shortly thereafter, three members of City Council were voted out of office, and Chester installed new spending restrictions. They eliminated the cash per diems and created a system of checks and balances where officials had to sign off on each other’s travel.

But the safeguards weren’t airtight.

An audit of the city’s 2005 spending found Chester’s then-mayor, Stringfellow, spent $1,100 to fly to a conference in Ohio, a charge that auditors deemed “extravagant for any domestic destination.” A recent search for flights from Charlotte to Columbus, Ohio, found several tickets at less than $300.

That same year, Stringfellow racked up nearly $600 in mileage charges while driving to a conference in New Orleans, about $400 more than a plane ticket would have cost taxpayers. Stringfellow had taxpayers foot the bill for four dinners during that trip, each of which cost $47. Stringfellow responded that the audit was part of a coordinated “witch hunt” against her.

Reached Thursday for an interview, Stringfellow defended City Council’s spending on training over the years. A science teacher at Chester Middle School, Stringfellow said she always wants to learn more about ways to help her community and be a more effective mayor. She said she spent all four days of the November 2019 San Antonio conference taking classes and brought home ideas on how to revitalize Chester’s derelict downtown.

“Training is essential,” she said. “If you’re going to get training that is going to be of quality, it’s going to cost you something.”

City Council abolished its spending restrictions in 2014, reasoning that council members could be trusted to police their own conduct and spend money responsibly.

A cascade of mistakes

In King’s case, a judge ordered the suspended councilman to forfeit his office in July 2020, ending a spending spree that cost taxpayers more than $11,500.

Observers say this was a story of missed opportunities, of systems and individuals both failing to protect voters and taxpayers.

King’s rap sheet should have affected his status in the state voter registration database.

A more extensive background check — had one been run — could have told election officials King wasn’t eligible for office.

City Council could have removed King when it learned of King’s convictions — more than two years before he was ultimately booted from office.

City leaders could have followed the guidance of the Attorney General’s Office and stopped the flow of public dollars to a suspended official.

But at every turn, they didn’t.

“There’s no way that this should have escaped the attention of the people who were signing off on this,” said Teague, the League of Women Voters vice president.

Shortly after King left office, the city scheduled a special election to replace him. Records show King even explored whether he could run in that race, trying to replace himself.

But state Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office concluded that would be illegal.

So the special election went on without him. The race drew five candidates.

Who did Chester voters pick to replace King? Robbie King-Boyd, his sister.

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