McKown to seek two years' back pay

York County Coroner Doug McKown might have a difficult time collecting the nearly two years' worth of back pay he says he deserves.

York County officials say they don't plan on paying McKown for the time he was suspended from his elected post. An opinion from the state Attorney General's Office seems to support that position.

The York County coroner serves a four-year term and is paid $63,521 annually. McKown, 39, resumed the coroner's duties earlier this month after being acquitted of felony cocaine charges in May. He was found guilty of unlawfully possessing a prescription drug, but the misdemeanor conviction wasn't enough to keep him out of office.

Now that he's returned to the job, he wants back pay.

"It's plain and simple," McKown said Wednesday before leaving for a job interview in Las Vegas. "I never should've been removed from office. I never should've lost a day's pay. I never should've lost a day's benefit. And I just want what I'm entitled to."

Gov. Mark Sanford suspended McKown in July 2006, a day after he was indicted on felony drug charges. Sanford later appointed Sabrina Gast, coordinator of the local Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program, to serve as interim coroner. Gast left office when McKown took over June 2.

McKown contends the county should have continued to pay him during his suspension.

"It is a precarious situation for the county, but nonetheless, I've suffered greatly as a result of being suspended without due process," he said. "I was innocent until proven guilty -- and I am innocent."

However, a 2004 opinion by the state Attorney General's Office says suspended elected officials who are acquitted of the charges that led to their suspension aren't eligible for back pay.

That finding stemmed from a case involving former Agriculture Commissioner Charles Sharpe, who was suspended from office after being indicted in an FBI investigation of a cockfighting operation.

That opinion concludes Sharpe "would not be entitled to receive his salary or benefits during the period of his suspension," and "would not be entitled to back pay for the period of his suspension (if) he is subsequently acquitted or if the charges are dropped or withdrawn."

Sharpe admitted in 2005 to taking $10,000 to protect a cockfighting organization from legal trouble and was sentenced to two years in prison.

Kathy Williams, assistant director of the S.C. Association of Counties, said the attorney general's opinion in the Sharpe case should answer the question about suspended officials and back pay.

"That sounds pretty authoritative," she said. "I think that's pretty clear."

County Manager Jim Baker said the county has no obligation to pay McKown.

"We don't really think that that's our issue," he said. "We didn't suspend him. We paid a coroner throughout the term of his suspension."

McKown hasn't formally asked for back pay, Baker said, but McKown has asked to talk with county officials about the matter. Baker said the county followed Sanford's directions and McKown didn't do any work for the county during his suspension.

"From our perspective, we did everything that was required," Baker said. "Obviously, he's entitled to see it differently. Sometimes, people do."

McKown contends a recent attorney general's opinion about his case paves the way for him to collect back pay. That opinion said McKown could return to office, but it doesn't mention back pay.

"It's not a suspendible offense," McKown said.

McKown would have earned $115,223.40 if he had continued to receive a paycheck during his suspension, according to county records.

But that money isn't everything McKown is looking for.

"Certainly, salary is an issue," he said. "There are other things that go along with being employed that are involved. ... I've been without health insurance for two years. I've been without dental insurance for two years. Quite frankly, I think they owe me those things."

McKown said the state has placed the county in an awkward position, but he hopes the matter can be settled without going to court.

"It's not in my nature to want to do that," he said of pursuing legal action. He also said his attorneys have appealed his misdemeanor conviction, which stemmed from a half-pill of Viagra that police found at his home in May 2006.

During his trial, McKown's lawyer Jack Swerling argued that McKown's friends purchased Viagra on a trip to Costa Rica and no chemical test was ever done to prove the substance was actually the prescription pill used to treat erectile dysfunction.

Swerling also argued that authorities didn't have probable cause to search McKown's house when the Viagra was found. The trial judge disagreed and ruled the search was legal.