Former Public Defender Settles Suit With County Over Firing

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A former assistant public defender has settled his lawsuit against his boss and Charleston County for $605,000.

Beattie Butler accused Ashley Pennington, the county's top public defender, of violating his constitutional right to free speech when he was fired for raising ethics concerns about 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson and her office.

Butler accused Pennington of improperly trying to suppress complaints about Wilson from the public defender's office. Pennington denied that, saying Butler had a fixation on Wilson that became disruptive.

Neither Butler nor Pennington acknowledged wrongdoing. Butler dropped his lawsuit and Pennington dropped his defamation counter-suit. South Carolina's Insurance Reserve Fund and the Chubb North America insurance company are paying for the settlement as well as the legal bills of Pennington and the county, according to reporting by The Post and Courier.

Butler said he felt duty-bound to file complaints about Wilson with the state Supreme Court's Office of Disciplinary Counsel over alleged misconduct by prosecutors in various cases. This misconduct often involved prosecutors' failure to turn over evidence to defense attorneys before trial.

Butler alleged that Pennington forbade him from filing complaints, an accusation Pennington denies.

According to Wilson, the issues were already resolved in court with no findings of prosecutorial misconduct.

In February 2014, the South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed a grievance, seeking an investigation into Wilson's office. In May 2014, Columbia lawyer Desa Ballard also filed grievances, seeking investigations into both Wilson and Pennington for alleged ethical violations.

State judicial officials ultimately dismissed the ethics complaints after finding no evidence to support their claims.

“I regret that the State (and possibly its taxpayers) have to foot the bill for Mr. Pennington’s conduct,” Butler said in a statement. “All I ever wanted was my job back.”

According to Butler, the lawsuit could have been settled years ago if Pennington had agreed to rehire him with the same salary without having to work with his former boss. This resolution had been proposed by Pennington's own lawyers but according to Butler, he turned down the idea.

Pennington declined to discuss Butler's statement and Charleston County officials offered no comment to The Post and Courier.