Horry County Council meeting gets tense as SLED investigates extortion claim

Grand Strand

CONWAY, SC (WBTW) – A specially called Horry County Council meeting got tense Friday, as the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division investigates an accusation of an extortion attempt involving the new head of the council.

The meeting lasted about 30 minutes and only had one main agenda item: executive session. It would have allowed council to privately talk about an employee matter, but it was shot down. No action was taken in the meeting.

Council voted 10-2 against going into executive session after several council members shared their feelings publicly.

​”I don’t see what we’re going to talk about back there that we can’t discuss out here in the open in public,” said Dennis DiSabato, a councilman representing Myrtle Beach.

The employees publicly discussed were county administrator Chris Eldridge and county attorney Arrigo Carotti. Last month, Eldridge asked SLED to investigate a claim of attempted extortion by an associate of new council chair Johnny Gardner.

The claim says a man named Luke Barefoot tried to extort $40,000 from Sandy Davis, the CEO of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation, in exchange for killing a negative blog story about her. Eldridge says he listened to about four minutes of a 90-minute audio recording of a conversation involving Barefoot, Gardner, Davis and another member of MBREDC.

Some council members criticized how Eldridge and Carotti have handled the claim.

“We have a county administrator that has made allegations against the new, incoming chairman and against prominent citizens in this county with no factual evidence whatsoever,” said Al Allen, a councilman representing Aynor.

Eldridge gave a letter to council members after Friday’s meeting. News 13 obtained a copy of that letter, in which Eldridge requests any conversations about the future of his job to be in public.

“I will not have my integrity attacked without means of defense in public,” Eldridge wrote in the letter.

Councilman Harold Worley, who represents North Myrtle Beach, also questioned Carotti’s handling of the controversy.

“SLED needs to finish, and I’ll say this to you, Chris, and you, Arrigo,” Worley said during the meeting. “If it comes back that you guys tried to set this man (Gardner) up, I will vote to fire you.”

Carotti responded to Councilman Worley.

“If I lose the trust of my client, I’ll quit,” Carotti said. “You don’t have to play any politics when it comes to me.”

Gardner called the special meeting and was one of the two votes supporting the executive session.

“This was a personnel matter and, my understanding, personnel matters are always done in executive session,” said Gardner. “You don’t want to embarrass employees and things like that.”

Gardner also says he wants to move past the rumors as he prepares for his first year as council chair.

“I thought it was a time to try to figure out a way to handle this so we can move forward and get to the business of governing,” he said.

Horry County Council will meet for the first time with Gardner as chair on Thursday.

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