The clerk of the Chester County Council and the county’s information technology consultant were fired Tuesday and are the target of a criminal investigation after authorities say they conspired to destroy an audio recording of a council meeting.
Both denied any intent to commit a crime.
County Supervisor Shane Stuart called deputies Tuesday morning, according to a sheriff’s report, and confirmed later in the day that he had fired Clerk Carolyn Clayton and Eddie Buchanan.
“I took action and terminated them,” said Stuart, who was sworn in last month as the county’s top administrator. Stuart supervises county employees and is chairman of the County Council.
Stuart told deputies that Clayton kept the audio recording device she uses to record County Council meetings running when the council went into executive session near the end of the April 20 meeting.
“During that time,” the sheriff’s report states, “clerk to court began making some defamatory comments.”
Stuart told deputies that “after realizing that (Clayton) was still recording, she did work and conspire with Eddie Buchanan to alter and destroy public documents,” the recording of the meeting.
Another employee discovered the alteration the next morning, according to the report, and notified Stuart. After a week-long internal investigation, Stuart fired Clayton and Buchanan.
Unlawful removal, defacing or destruction of public records is a misdemeanor under state law, carrying up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $5,000 upon conviction.
‘Hate for anybody to hear this’
Clayton, 67, told The Herald that she disputes that she defaced anything or made defamatory comments. She said she was wrongly terminated after making comments during the executive session about whether some county positions had been filled without having been placed for public bids.
“I never destroyed anything,” said Clayton, calling herself “a loyal employee” who had been clerk to council and an administrative assistant for 13 years.
Clayton said she “inadvertently left the tape running” when the County Council went into executive session April 20, and later during a conversation with another employee at her desk, when she made comments about how she believed that the county physician and county attorney positions should be subject to public bids.
“As far as I can remember,” she said, “it is all I said.”
The next day, Clayton said, she asked Buchanan, who makes copies of the recorded meetings on DVDs, to delete the conversation from the minutes because she would “hate for anybody to hear this.”
Clayton said she is looking into her legal options.
“I do dispute that I defaced anything,” Clayton said. “I have the right to freedom of speech. I was exercising my right.”
‘Did what I was asked to do’
Buchanan, 46, told The Herald he did edit the recording, but that he didn’t know it was a crime. He said he would not have changed the recording if he had known that doing so was illegal.
When Clayton asked him to edit the recording, Buchanan said, she told him executive session proceedings that were not supposed to be part of the public record were mistakenly recorded.
Buchanan said he edited and modified the tape, but did not alter the original that both he and Clayton said remains intact.
“If you call that destruction of property, then I did it,” Buchanan said. “But I didn’t destroy anything. I modified and edited it. I did what I was asked to do.
“I didn’t think I was committing an offense. If I had known, I would not have done it.”
Buchanan said he is an information technology consultant, who was on contract with the county for the past six months and not technically a county employee.
State public records law requires government bodies to keep minutes, recorded or written, as a record of who was there, what of substance was discussed, and to have a record of any votes that are taken, said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association. The law ensures the public’s right to know what elected officials do in public meetings and keep an accurate record of what happened, he said.
Rogers said he has never heard of an allegation of an intentional destruction, or even an attempt to destroy, public meeting minutes.
County Council vice chairman Joe Branham and council members Brad Jordan and Alex Oliphant declined to comment on the firings. Efforts to reach council members Mary Guy, John Holcombe and Archie Lucas were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065