Ousted Lancaster County economic head claims defamation in lawsuit

The ousted president of the now-defunct Lancaster County Economic Development Corp. wants Lancaster County and some public officials to pay him damages after claiming he was defamed and conspired against before he left in October, according to a lawsuit filed this week.

Allen “Keith” Tunnell had been president of the public-private economic group starting in 2004 but county leaders voted last year to cut funding for the agency.

In the lawsuit filed Monday, Tunnell alleges Lancaster County, three county council members and a business group called South Carolina I-77 Alliance conspired against him and defamed him in the months leading up to the disbanding of the economic development board.

Tunnell wants punitive and actual damages, claiming harm to his reputation. He alleges the county, county council members Bob Bundy, Charlene McGriff and Larry Honeycutt, and York Technical College President Greg Rutherford made public and written statements that he was “untrustworthy” and “unable to perform his job,” the lawsuit states. Tunnell alleges there was pressure from the defendants to “get rid” of him.

The filing of the lawsuit comes months after county officials cut off money to the board and disbanded it after almost three decades.

In the lawsuit, Tunnell claims that while Lancaster County made unprecedented gains in economic development while he was in charge, the defendants made “false allegations” including that he “personally profited” from the Lancaster economic development board’s involvement with the Haile Gold Mine, near Kershaw.

Much of the complaint centers on the time in 2015 after directors of the economic development board gave Tunnell and other employees a salary increase.

John Weaver, staff attorney for Lancaster County, said Wednesday he is aware Tunnell filed the lawsuit but declined comment. McGriff, a council member, said she was unaware a suit had been filed and since she had not seen it nor read its contents, she declined comment.

Councilman Bundy and Rutherford, the York Technical College president, and officials with the S.C. I-77 Alliance also declined to comment.

Efforts to reach Honeycutt were unsuccessful.

Resolution of these types of complaints often takes months or even years. The defendants have 30 days to respond to the lawsuit in writing, and a hearing is set for October.