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Election 2016: Coroner sues to keep challengers off the ballot

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The Georgetown County Coroner has gone to court to block two challengers from appearing on the ballot in the November election, saying they don’t meet the state’s eligibility requirements.

Kenny Johnson, the Republican incumbent, is seeking injunctions against the county and state election commissions from placing Ryan Pitts, a Democrat, and Russ Graham, an Independence Party candidate, on the ballot. He also wants the court to enjoin the Democratic Party from certifying Pitts’ as a candidate.

“They’re not qualified according to the statute,” Johnson said. “And no one wants to do anything about it.”

State law requires candidates for coroner to meet one of seven educational requirement. In filing for office, Pitts and Graham signed affidavits saying they would meet the fifth one: “have completed a recognized forensic science degree or certification program or be enrolled in a recognized forensic science degree or certification program to be completed within one year of being elected.”

But there is only one certification program that is recognized in South Carolina. It requires that a person work in a coroner’s office or medical examiner’s office and have 640 hours of death investigation experience before they can apply for the course, according to Dennis Fowler, coroner in Cherokee County and president of the S.C. Coroner’s Association. He is a member of the Coroner’s Training Advisory Committee created by state law. A letter from Fowler is included in Johnson’s suit.

However, Graham is already enrolled in the certification program, offered through St. Louis University. He signed up after filing. He will fly to St. Louis in August to complete the course.

“Who would think a coroner’s race would get this exciting this early on,” Graham said. “I feel like I am qualified.”

Johnson said in court filings that Pitts and Graham should have completed the course or enrolled before they filed to run for coroner. In an interview, Johnson said the staff at the county Board of Voter Registration and Elections should have checked the candidates’ qualifications when they filed. “They don’t vet them. They just take their paper work and say ‘Thank you,’” Johnson said. “You’re crazy to allow these guys to run if they’re not qualified.”

Johnson, the coroner for 20 years, said he isn’t concerned about the opposition. “It has to do with the process,” he said.

Although Pitts wasn’t aware of the court filing, he received a letter from Johnson’s attorney in April demanding that he withdraw or face a legal challenge. “This will be time-consuming to you and Mr. Johnson so it is imperative to take action,” the letter from Robert E. Tyson Jr. said. The same letter was also sent to Graham.

“I totally disagree with it,” Pitts said. “All I had to do to be qualified to run was swear to take the course.”

If he is elected, he will be working in the coroner’s office and be able to get the 640 hours of experience he needs to enroll in the certification program. Even if he doesn’t complete the program within a year, he has been told by other coroners he can apply for an extension. Pitts called Johnson’s letter “a threat and a bluff.”

Johnson said it takes a year and a half to get qualified. Graham said the coursework for the certification takes a week. “I’m not going to be Quincy, M.D.,” he said, referring to the television series from the 1970s. “It’s not CSI: Georgetown.”

Graham said he found that experience toward certification accrues at the rate of a quarter hour for every hour on call. As a corner on call 24/7, he could accrue 6 hours of experience a day.

Johnson, a former deputy sheriff, has had opposition in the past, but not since the education requirement was changed to determine which certification program would be recognized.

“It wasn’t to prevent people from running,” he said. There are other ways candidates can be qualified through their education, experience or a combination of both. “There are so many people who think it’s super, super easy,” Johnson said.

His attorney represented the Sumter County coroner who brought a similar action after losing the Democratic primary in 2012. A judge ruled the winner wasn’t qualified and the party certified the defeated incumbent for the general election.

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