After months of violating state law, St. Stephen fire dept. turns over public records

Published: Oct. 21, 2021 at 10:31 AM EDT|Updated: Oct. 21, 2021 at 10:45 AM EDT
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ST. STEPHEN, S.C. (WCSC) - After more than three months, legal intervention, and a visit to town council, the man in charge of public safety in St. Stephen has finally turned over public documents that were requested under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act, also known as FOIA.

Chief Lee Wadford released documents involving former St. Stephen firefighter Felix Butler on Wednesday morning.

After Georgia authorities announced in 2018 that Butler was wanted on a felony rape charge in Augusta, he was still able to join the St. Stephen Volunteer Fire Department. Butler was subsequently arrested and extradited back to Georgia in July.

Following Butler’s arrest, Wadford agreed to release a number of public records to Live 5 Investigates, including Butler’s application to join the fire department and records from his background check, so a formal request was submitted to Wadford under FOIA.

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.

Live 5 Investigates waited week after week for Wadford to release most of the documents, but he violated FOIA by failing to provide them within the law’s required timeframe.

Until Wednesday, Wadford and representatives for the Town of St. Stephen had not responded to letters sent electronically and by certified mail from an attorney for WCSC-TV.

Due to Wadford’s lack of compliance with FOIA, a reporter and a producer from Live 5 Investigates went to St. Stephen’s municipal council meeting on Monday evening.

When asked about the FOIA request that was submitted, Mayor John Rivers appeared at first to be unfamiliar with the matter.

“If you want to let me know what the documents are, I’ll look into it,” Rivers said.

Live 5 Investigates left St. Stephen Town Hall on Monday without any of the documents that were still being sought.

While preparing to pack up and leave St. Stephen after recording file video of the firehouse, an unidentified man in a dark-colored pickup truck drove from the fire department’s property to an adjacent public parking lot where Live 5 Investigates’ reporter and producer were standing.

The individual in the pickup truck demanded that his vehicle not be filmed or broadcasted. The reporter and producer reminded him they were on public property and had a legal right to be filming.

He pressed on, even after the team attempted to diffuse the situation.

Then, the producer began recording the interaction as the reporter said, “This is not worth the argument. Have a good night.”

The man in the pickup truck continued, saying it was worth the argument.

“If I see it, I’m coming after y’all two,” he said before driving off.

Less than 48 hours after Live 5 Investigates visited St. Stephen and nearly three months to the day after the FOIA request related to Butler’s service with the fire department was submitted, Wadford produced the requested documents.

A report regarding the threat was subsequently filed with the St. Stephen Police Department and the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office.

Details about how Felix Butler was able to join St. Stephen’s fire department and what implications the decisions surrounding the hiring of firefighters could have across South Carolina will be specified in a Live 5 Investigates report at a later date.

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