WINNSBORO — Allegations of County Administrator Phil Hinely using his county computer to view and send pornographic emails have surfaced, some three years after the alleged activity.
A State Law Enforcement Division case file into Hinely’s conduct was closed in February 2013 and according to SLED, Solicitor Doug Barfield examined photos that Hinely had shared with people via email from his county email address, and Barfield determined, in his opinion, that the images were not illegal.
Hinely told the Herald Independent that in 2010 “questionable adult material” was emailed to him by a friend, and up until 2010 he had some of it on his county computer.
“Mostly they were jokes, and I would read and then delete it. I maybe forwarded a half dozen emails to people then,” he said. “I would describe it as locker room humor. It was inappropriate. I realized that and then I stopped doing it. I didn’t forward a lot but may have forwarded some.”
Hinely said that at some point he realized that the emails were inappropriate and that he put a stop to them via a self-imposed email policy that he said also became the county employee email policy.
“This was a self-imposed email policy put in place in 2010,” he said.
However, county documents show the county email use policy and the county internet use policy were both put into place by Hinely in 2008.
In elaborating on why he faced no disciplinary action when the investigation came to light, Hinely said that he was not a full-time employee of the county and therefore was exempt from the county code of conduct for its employees.
“(As a contract employee), I’m technically exempt (from the code of conduct) but I’m not going to run around and do crazy stuff like that. Prior to 2011 there were no firewalls. Now I could not get to (those emails/images) if I wanted to and I instituted that firewall policy,” he said. “It was never illegal but in general it is in poor taste, so I instituted a policy for nothing (like vulgarities) or X-rated content to get through the firewall.”
According to the county, the provisions contained in (the county procedures manual) shall apply to all employees of the county except the following:
a. members of county council
b. members of boards and committees
c. elected county officials
d. county administrator
e. clerk to council
f. consultants and professional personnel who are engaged on a contractual basis
g. certain other positions such as seasonal or part-time positions as the County Council shall except.”
Fairfield County policy states in section 3.1:
“The Fairfield County Government email system shall not be used for the creation of or distribution of any disruptive or offensive messages, including offensive comments about race, gender, hair color, disabilities, age, sexual orientation, pornography, religious beliefs and practice, political beliefs or national origin.”
The story of Hinely’s activity may reveal more, since WIS TV reporter Jody Barr was informed one of the options required for him to have access to all of Hinely’s emails, some 5,000, of them would be to pay the county $29,395 in legal fees and copying fees. That solution to Barr’s request for access to the documents did not sit well with Bill Rogers an attorney with the South Carolina Press Association.
As further explanation, Hinely said he never looked at the emails during county work hours. According to Hinely no county employees received the emails in question from him.
“I sent this to no members of county council,” he said. “We’re talking about 18 emails over a five month time period. Three years ago, eighteen times I did stupid things. I came to my senses and we moved on. Now, three years later you’re telling me there’s this big investigation.”
“This represents outrageous abuse of the Freedom of Information Act. My rule is the bigger the secret, the more they charge for you to see it,” Rogers said. “These are public documents and the public should be allowed to view them for free. The law does not allow for the county to charge for the time a lawyer takes to review the documents. Citizens should be outraged. This is a total abuse of power. There may be things they need to redact, but it should not cost $30,000. This is one of the more outrageous bills I have seen in over 25 years.”
For his part, Hinely said he sees this incident as a mistake he’d like to put behind him so he could get on with his work as county administrator. The SLED action concluded that no further action needed to be taken by the division other than to notify County Council Chairman David Ferguson of the findings, which SLED did in February 2013.
Contact Kevin Boozer at 635-4016 ext. 14 or firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @kevinboozer.