St. Stephen Volunteer Fire Department violating state public records law

Published: Oct. 6, 2021 at 6:23 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 6, 2021 at 6:32 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A Berkeley County fire department is violating South Carolina records law by refusing to turn over documents.

Lee Wadford, the police and fire chief in St. Stephen, has failed to comply with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, also known as FOIA, by not releasing documents that could shine additional light on how a man who was wanted on a felony charge was able to serve as a volunteer firefighter in the town.

Authorities in Georgia announced in November of 2018 that they were searching for Felix Butler, who was accused of rape in the Augusta area.

Nearly three years later in July 2021, Butler was arrested after his former wife, the alleged victim in this case, came to St. Stephen and reported that her ex-husband was hiding in plain sight, Wadford said at the time.

“If I lived in St. Stephen, should I be concerned that anybody could be on the police force, that anybody could be a firefighter, even someone accused of a felony, a serious felony? I think I’d be concerned,” attorney and retired University of South Carolina media law professor Jay Bender said.

After Butler was taken into custody and extradited to Georgia, Live 5 Investigates requested a number of public documents from the St. Stephen Police Department and the St. Stephen Volunteer Fire Department, including his application to join the latter agency and all records from the background check that was required by law to be conducted on Butler.

“Yes the information requested will be released to you,” Wadford wrote in an email to Live 5 Investigates on July 23. “Once legal has approved the release I will email it all to you. If you can, please send me the FOIA so I will have it on file.”

Live 5 Investigates immediately sent a formal request to Wadford under FOIA.

More than a month later, on Aug. 26, Wadford only released an incident report for Butler’s arrest.

As of Oct. 6, more than 70 days after the FOIA request was submitted, no records related to how Butler was able to join the fire department have been disclosed

“It sends two possible messages. Either it’s a willful disregard of the requirements of the law, which is possible, or it’s just rank incompetence on the part of this police department and fire department,” Bender said. “My guess is it’s closer to the latter.”

South Carolina’s FOIA states that once requests for public records are granted, records that are less than two years old must be provided within 30 calendar days and records that are more than two years old must be provided within 35 calendar days.

Due to the St. Stephen Volunteer Fire Department’s lack of response to the FOIA request, it is not yet known whether Butler joined the department more than two years ago. Regardless of the timing of when Butler’s started being a volunteer firefighter in St. Stephen, the department has exceeded the time that is allotted under FOIA to provide responsive records.

Margaret Strouse, a lawyer for WCSC-TV, sent two letters to Wadford regarding the FOIA request.

“You are in violation of South Carolina law,” Strouse wrote in one letter.

However, Wadford, who is in charge of law enforcement in St. Stephen, has yet to respond to Strouse or Live 5 Investigates.

Even if St. Stephen officials were to claim they were unaware of what FOIA requires, Bender says the law still stands.

“Now if I got a speeding ticket in St. Stephen, do you think I’d have a defense if I said ‘oh I didn’t know the speed limit was 15 miles an hour here?’ Of course not. I’d have to pay the fine,” Bender said.

St. Stephen is one of the smallest towns in the Lowcountry, but FOIA applies to all South Carolina municipalities, regardless of size.

“I’m no longer willing to give a small government a pass because it fails to understand what the law is and follow the law,” Bender said.

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