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Lawyers: County's threat to sue 'unusual'

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By Stephen Guilfoyle

FORT LAWN –  Chester County Attorney Joanie Winters’ threat to take legal action to stop slanderous and defamatory comments attacking a former Fort Lawn police officer was inappropriate, a lawyer for the S.C. Press Association said.

Another lawyer who works with county governments said he has never heard of a situation quite like what is happening in Fort Lawn.

The purchase last year of several items of property by Robert Cauthen when he was a police lieutenant in Fort Lawn has been questioned by some Fort Lawn residents at two meetings in the past three weeks.

Last week, Winters spoke to Fort Lawn Town Council and said the county would consider legal action. Her comment has led to some concern by those questioning the purchases.

Some said they do not think she should be able to do that, and others were concerned the county was making threats to stop debate.

Winters said in a written statement: “As the county attorney, I will tell you that if the slander and defamation continues, the county is prepared to take legal action. It needs to stop. Citizens can have personal opinions and professional opinions. They cannot have slanderous opinions that are presented with malice.”

The county “has no interest” in protecting the reputation of Cauthen, now Chester County’s chief deputy, according to Jay Bender, the press association’s longtime attorney.

Cauthen could file suit himself with a private attorney, but the county would not be able to file a suit on his behalf, Bender said.

Winters said last week that her comment has been taken out of context in that it does not say she would file a slander suit.

She said she believes the county can file for an injunction to stop picketers who have held up signs in front of Fort Lawn Town Hall that she said are slanderous against Cauthen and Sheriff Richard Smith, who was police chief in Fort Lawn at the time of the property purchases.

The threat to sue is unusual, said Robert S. Croom, deputy general counsel and director of legal and legislative affairs for the S.C. Association of Counties.

“I haven’t heard of anything quite like that,” he said.

He said the county might have an interest in protecting Cauthen’s reputation if he had an individual bond that protects him and the county.

But the county probably has a blanket bond covering its deputies, Croom said.

Winters said her intent was to ask residents to wait to see what the state will do in a review of Cauthen’s purchase.

The State Budget & Control Board’s Division of Surplus Property is conducting a compliance review over property purchases made by the town.

Cauthen has told The News & Reporter in Chester that his transfer of a camper from the town of Fort Lawn to the Chester County Sheriff’s Office was probably not handled correctly, but he’s working with someone from Surplus Property to correct it.

Smith said it will amount to a paperwork error.

At the same time, Smith has called for a State Law Enforcement Division investigation into the matter “just to clear the air.”

Winters said the official conducting the compliance review is getting calls not only from the State Law Enforcement Division and the Ethics Division but a large volume of calls from Fort Lawn residents wanting to know what is going on.

Winters said she hoped that Fort Lawn residents would get her main point  – to wait for the compliance review to be completed.

“That didn’t happen, though,” she said.

Residents have also filed a complaint with the State Ethics Division over the issue.