Over one month ago Simpsonville’s Police Chief Keith Grounsell was fired. Since that date the city council chambers have been packed at full capacity for every council meeting and the people still don’t like the controversial way information is being released. The mixed reasons for termination, clearly debated among council members, appear to be a smoke screen for something much larger going on behind the scenes. Now, we find out that SLED is involved and conducting an investigation.
The city of Simpsonville is no stranger to controversial actions. In 2008, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division [SLED] came to Simpsonville to conduct a criminal investigation into allegations of theft. As a result, the city conducted its own internal investigation where city employees investigated other city employees. Looking into other cities across the state and how they conducted past criminal investigations, leads a reasonable person to view these type of internal investigation as a conflict of interest. It appears that the normal protocol for a municipality who suspects crimes are being committed by their own employees, should recuse themselves from any involvement that could be misconstrued as biases or an unfair investigation, in order to allow a neutral and detached law enforcement agency (i.e. SLED or Greenville County Sheriff’s Office in this scenario) to come in and investigate. Conducting a simultaneous criminal investigation while an ongoing SLED investigation is taking place can be perceived as creating issues or hindering the SLED investigation. Shortly after these criminal allegations were reported to SLED in 2008, they opened up an official investigation and entered the city of Simpsonville. According to records, a forensic audit was conducted in 2008 by Cherry, Bekaert & Holland accounting firm at a cost of approximately $9,287.82. In addition, another $9,266.07 of tax payers’ money was spent to pay for a Certified Public Account [CPA] firm. Excluding the alleged thefts that had occurred, this has cost the tax payers a minimum of $18,553.89. These allegations were reported to SLED by a former city employee, who will not be named as to protect his/her identity. It should be known that no arrest were made in this SLED investigation, but the person(s) who allegedly blew the whistle on these possible unlawful acts were terminated shortly thereafter. The reason for the termination was said not to of had anything to do with reporting the alleged criminal activities. This type of termination sounds very similar to what happened to former Police Chief Keith Grounsell, who was terminated for reporting violations against the former Assistant Police Chief Colleen O’Neil. Grounsell’s allegations against the Assistant Police Chief were properly documented, supported by photographic evidence, numerous police officer eyewitness statements and other corroborating facts. The city still refused to allow Grounsell to discipline this employee, allegedly because she had filed an EEOC complaint against the city. Contrary to the February 4, 2013, press release by Mayor Perry Eichor, there has never been another indication that Grounsell was named as a party in Colleen O’Neil’s EEOC complaint. O’Neil was alleging that she felt discriminated against by city officials who failed to select her to be the chief of police because of her age and sex . The Sentinel cannot comment as to any further facts on this EEOC complaint because nothing further has been released and it is said to still be ongoing. Chief Grounsell did make it clear he was advised by city officials that he had nothing to do with Colleen O’Neil’s initial filing of her EEOC complaint, other than being the candidate that was selected over her for the Chief of Police position. What some of the Simpsonville city officials fail to realize is that Police Officers have an ethical and legal obligation to report any knowledge of criminal or policy violations. Failing to report these law violations and having knowledge of them, only puts the employee in a situation where he/she could be charged as an accessory before or after the fact. If they do not report ethical and policy violations that they discover, a police officer could be subject to disciplinary actions, up to and including termination. Did Grounsell really put the city in a compromising situation because he did what was right and reported violations? This is exactly what Mayor Eichor has said on more than one occasion, to include his February 4, 2013, statement during a press conference. According to Adam Moore, one of the Chief Grounsell supporters who has attended the recent city council protest, “the reason we are here (at city hall for a council meeting) is because we know that Keith did the right thing by reporting violations and standing his ground on his strong ethical standards. I have known Keith since I was a teenager because he voluntarily acted as my mentor while he was a Mauldin Police Officer. He use to come by and check on me almost every day while he was on patrol. If it was not for him I may not be the husband and father I am today. I still call Keith for advice on a regular basis because I know him as a straight shooter who will always tell me the right thing to do in any given situation. Keith once told me that no matter what the consequences, you may be put in a position during your life where you have to do what is right and know that it will have some severe consequences. He told me this many years ago, but it was not until recently that I knew exactly what he was speaking about…now his is living out exactly how he told me to honorably live my life.”
In early 2012, SLED came into the city of Simpsonville again. This time they conducted a preliminary investigation into suspected criminal wrongdoings having to do with multiple past and present city officials. It has been confirmed that this investigation had to do with allegations about the misuse or misappropriation of city funds, specifically the city’s sewer funds. This investigation drew a lot of attention by the citizens of Simpsonville because at that time their sewer rates were about to be doubled in order to try and get the sewer funds to an amount that they would have been if the money was not misspent or misused in areas other than what it was designated for (i.e. the sewer system in Simpsonville). This investigation seemed to come to a halt when Mayor Perry Eichor decided that as a “weak Mayor” in a “strong Council” form of government, he has absolute management authority over all city affairs, decisions and he could even control a SLED investigation. According to sources, Mayor Eichor told the SLED agents investigating this case that the city did not want and/or cannot afford a forensic audit at this time. Mayor Eichor also downplayed the criminal allegations into the misuse or misappropriation of city funds (i.e. sewer fund), vowing to citizens in a public city council meeting during 2012 that they would not do it again because he is the Mayor now. This did not bode well with the citizens and is exceptionally concerning since Mayor Eichor lives in the city limits, but does not pay a city sewer fee on his personal residence. This is a very confusing stance for a Mayor who campaigned on “transparency in government” and vowed to numerous citizens during his campaign that he was going to clean up the corruption in Simpsonville. Not only did Mayor Eichor speak out inappropriately on something that he does not have the final authority to do as a “weak” mayor in a “strong council” form of government, but he went against his own campaign promises of transparency in government and cleaning up the city of Simpsonville. Based upon the record amount of correspondences that the Sentinel has received about this issue; Mayor Eichor needs to understand that the citizens of Simpsonville, who are his constituents, want answers to the SLED investigation that he had decided to interfere with. It is uncertain at this time if these actions on behalf of the Mayor are illegal, a violation of the state ethics commission, but they are not being taken lightly by the people having to pay two times the sewer fees every month. Mayor Eichor should not have tried to make this call by himself without bringing the information before the rest of city council in an executive session. The normal protocol for major issues, such as determining if the city wants to conduct a detailed forensic audit and voluntarily open the books for a SLED investigation, should have been as follows: this information should have been put on the agenda to be discussed at the next city council meeting under the privacy of an executive session. During the executive session the 6 council members and Mayor could consult with the city attorney to determine the proper direction to go from this point forward. By doing this improperly, Mayor Eichor acted with disregard for the best interest of the citizens as a whole and acted as a dictator, instead of allowing all 7 of the citizen elected representatives (i.e. 6 city council members & the Mayor) to vote as a whole on this issue when they came out of executive session. Whatever the group would have decided would have been final at that point, but because it was not handled properly it leave some serious doubt in Mayor Eichors abilities as a representative of the citizens. The citizens have been overwhelming with comments to this newspaper, stressing demands for answers and transparency in government. One of the only ways to clear the record of any suspected wrong doings by city council and the mayor, both past and present) would be to voluntarily pay for the city to have a detailed forensic audit and investigation to be completed by SLED. A decision to conduct a forensic audit is a big decision and one that should be decided by the 6 council members and mayor, each of which only have one vote. If it requires an expensive forensic audit to expose the truth, then the citizens are entitled to the truth.
On Monday, February 4, 2012, SLED initiated another criminal investigation at city hall in Simpsonville. This is the 3rd criminal investigation conducted on the city of Simpsonville in the last 5 years. It is unknown at this time, if the alleged criminal activity that prompted this investigation is linked to the previous two SLED investigations. This time the citizens and taxpayers deserve to see transparency and honesty from our city officials, both elected and appointed. After SLED Agent(s) were said to have met with Mayor Eichor at city hall, Mayor Eichor called a 3:00pm press conference. This was unexpected and more than one council person admitted that they had no knowledge of what Mayor Eichor was doing calling a press conference. Mayor Eichor tried and partially succeeded in pulling the wool over the eyes of numerous media outlets, by attempting to mislead people to reasonably infer and spread rumors that SLED was at city hall to investigate former Police Chief Keith Grounsell and Councilwomen Geneva Lawrence. During the news conference, Mayor Eichor came up with multiple additional reasons for Chief Grounsell’s termination. More than one city council member has advised that these stated reasons are new reasons trumped up after the fact by the Mayor and were not discussed as the legal reasons for Grounsell’s termination during the December 28, 2012, executive session. When asked why he did not produce these reasons over a month earlier when Grounsell was terminated, Mayor Eichor stated “we probably should have just stated the reasons but did not want to hurt his chances for other employment.” This did not seem to be a factor when Mayor Eichor read a statement during the opening of the first city council meeting following Grounsell’s termination. In this statement Mayor Eichor said some pretty inflammatory comments and indicated that Grounsell did not have the ability to lead the Simpsonville Police Department as the Chief of Police. The letter signed by a vast majority of Police Department Employees on October 22, 2012, clearly states the opposite of what Mayor Eichor was claiming. Subsequently, Mayor Eichor and Councilman George Curtis spoke negatively about Chief Grounsell in general terms as if they wanted to leave it up to a person’s imagination about the insinuated abominable things that Grounsell did while in office. Falling into this same category of character attacks on anyone who stands up against Mayor Eichor and the 4 council people that voted Chief Grounsell out of office, were the criminal allegation made by the Mayor against Grounsell and Lawrence. During his February 4, 2013, news conference, Mayor Eichor stated that he had sent out a letter to the Chief of SLED, Mark Keel, requesting that allegations of efforts between Chief Grounsell and Councilwomen Lawrence to terminate an employee in order to clear a vacant position for one of Lawrence’s relatives was done. Mayor Eichor went as far as to call this activity “Malfeasance in Office”, or in other words Misconduct in Office according to SC laws, which is a felony punishable up to 10 years in prison in the state of South Carolina. When asked in a follow up question, Mayor Eichor stated that he sent out the letter to SLED Chief Mark Keel that very same day in the mail. If he had just sent it out that day, it had not been delivered yet and SLED was unaware of this complaint when Eichor conducted his press conference. It appears that Mayor Eichor knew that SLED was already at city hall conducting an investigation into possible criminal wrongdoings, so he intentionally created this last minute news conference to make it look like the SLED investigation that people will be hearing about was really former Chief Grounsell and Councilwomen Lawrence being investigated. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what attorneys refer to as the red heron. A red heron is a distractionary tactic to take your attention away from the truth and to lead you in the wrong direction and to make you believe that something that is completely false is actually reality. Mayor Eichor’s actions caused multiple media outlets to misreport the news on the evening of February 4, 2012. It came out on Fox News as if the former Chief Keith Grounsell and Councilwomen Geneva Lawrence were under a SLED investigation, not other persons working for the city of Simpsonville. Grounsell advised the Sentinel that he reached out to SLED on February 5, 2013, to advise them that if they needed to speak to him about anything that the Mayor may have reported to them, about himself or Councilwomen Lawrence; he was available 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Grounsell said he had nothing to hide and would continue to be the voice of truth and transparency as to what is really going on in the city of Simpsonville. Grounsell declined to comment any further stating that because he was maliciously accused by Mayor Perry Eichor of committing a felony, he would not want to do or say anything that could potentially do harm if SLED were to decide to inquire into these allegations. Grounsell added, he has faith that things will be investigated properly and thoroughly, so people need to be patient and allow law enforcement to do what they do best…dig until they find the truth. According to a Fox News story titled Mayor asks SLED to Investigate Grounsell, Councilwoman “a spokesman for SLED said an investigator will conduct a preliminary inquiry to determine if a full criminal investigation is warranted.” So, let it be known that at this time SLED is not investigating any allegations of crimes committed by Keith Grounsell of Geneva Lawrence. When asked to comment about this Grounsell stated “nothing surprises him anymore with this situation. I can’t comment until I sit down with my attorney. I would love to talk, but now they are making up false accusations of a malicious and illegal nature. This changes everything. At first it was just slander, but now it is filing false criminal accusations against myself and another elected official. It is sad that people in public trust positions abuse their powers to this extreme. When the truth comes out the city will be embarrassed at what some elected officials have said and done throughout this process.” Councilwomen Geneva Lawrence also commented and stated “I welcome a sled investigation into any facts that the Mayor thinks he has. I think they will find out that this is a case of an overactive imagination and actually has nothing to do with the issue at hand.”
Citizens of Simpsonville, do not be misled by the February 4, 2013, press release by Mayor Perry Eichor, because the current SLED investigation has nothing to do with any alleged criminal wrongdoings of Councilwomen Geneva Lawrence or Chief Keith Grounsell. The real matter being investigated has to do with some other allegations of criminal activity committed by current and/or previous city officials and/or employees. It appears that the Mayor has a history of trying to mislead the media based upon giving minimal information and claiming he has no knowledge of facts when he does not want to disclose things. A prime example of this was in a previous article written by the Sentinel where Perry Eichor disclosed that the Assistant Chief had filed an EEOC complaint against the city of Simpsonville. When the article came out in the Simpsonville Sentinel it had direct quotes in it from Mayor Eichor. Mayor Eichor denied saying these things, but they were clearly told to this reporter. This also occurred when Mayor Eichor reported information later published by News Channel 7 about the Simpsonville Police Officers threatening a walk-out. The mayor spoke vaguely about alleged problems with the management at the police department without giving specifics. In turn this caused a reasonable person to infer that the problem is with the Department Head at the police department, who is the Chief of Police and ultimate management authority for the officers. At the time that Mayor Eichor was quoted in the News Channel 7 story, which aired approximately December 16, 2012, this information was over two months old. Why did this information all of a sudden get pushed out to the media by Mayor Eichor? The story came out wrong initially, because it mislead people to believe that the Simpsonville Police Officers were disgruntled and threatened to walk off the job because they hired an outsider (Keith Grounsell), instead of an in-house candidate (Colleen O’Neil), to be the next Chief of Police. News Channel 7 quickly corrected this story when they received a copy of a letter given to city council in secrecy on October 22, 2012. The letter was signed by more than 30 police department employees, who clearly stated how the officers loved the new Chief, Keith Grounsell, and the direction he was taking the department. In addition, uniformed Officers commented publically about how Chief Grounsell brought a level of professionalism to the police department that was unheard of for over a decade before his arrival. Another officer, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal by the mayor and city administrator for telling the truth to a media outlet, said that “Chief Grounsell was on track to clean up this police department and city hall. He was an honest, hardworking cops-cop who treated us with nothing but honor and respect, which was something we have not seen in my entire career at the Simpsonville Police Department. He was able to change the morale for the good in a record amount of time. His command presence and willingness to stand up for what was right made him a trustworthy leader that any good cop would follow into battle. He was only with us for a short period of time, but I am holding onto a little bit of hope that he will get reinstated very soon. Otherwise, myself and a good many other quality officers at the Simpsonville Police Department are going to seek employment with other agencies.” The officer finished by saying that “Chief Grounsell would have accomplished some pretty amazing things if he was allowed to run his department without interference or micromanagement from people at City Hall, city council and most specifically the Mayor. He was doing the best he could under the circumstances, until the “good ole’ boy…local corrupt politicians fired him before he exposed all of their deep and shameful secrets.” Another Simpsonville Police Officer, who also wished to remain anonymous out of fear of termination for speaking the truth, stated that “Chief Grounsell brought hope to many of the officers, who had given up after more than 10 years of poor leadership under the previous chief and assistant chief.” It should be known that approximately 10 days after this media campaign was initiated by Mayor Eichor Grounsell was terminated.
Although elections have occurred putting new people in office (city council and the Mayor), and the old Police Chief (Reece) and Assistant Police Chief (O’Neil) are no longer employed with the city, many things are still troubling in the city of Simpsonville. Russ Hawes, the current City Administrator, seems to be the common denominator that was present and had a major controlling hand in each city department over the last decade. This includes the three SLED investigations. In addition, the city of Simpsonville has a Mayor with just over one year on the job with a long track record dating back over a decade. Looking at the Mayor’s past, we see that he has had other problems that are extremely similar to the problems that Simpsonville is experiencing right now. Below is a photograph taken during a meeting when Perry Eichor was the Jail Director at the Greenville County Detention Center. The people holding the signs were part of an NAACP protest after Mr. Perry Eichor’s decision to “rescind” his retirement as the Jail Director, following heavy controversy over the death of inmate Jamel Radcliff at the Greenville County Detention Center. Mayor Eichor appears to have a pattern of saying one thing and then doing another dating back in this case to March of 1998.
Times change (15 years go by), but obviously the devastation that one man leaves behind remains the same. Mayor Eichor appears to make the same mistakes and proceeds recklessly without due regard for the lives that are destroyed along the way. Now Chief Grounsell and Councilwomen Geneva Lawrence are in Mayor Eichors sights and appear to be unfairly slandered and caused tremendous amounts of heartache and stress by Mayor Eichors words and actions.