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Politics: Judge’s order says flawed forms kept coroner candidates off ballot

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Two candidates for Georgetown County coroner were struck from the November ballot because they failed to file the proper paperwork, according to an order filed in Circuit Court last week.

Judge Ben Culbertson granted an injunction to Coroner Kenny Johnson, a Republican, to keep the state and county election commissions from placing the names of Ryan Pitts, a Democrat, and Russ Graham, an independent, on the general election ballot. He signed a written order June 13, but it wasn’t filed until June 30. The state law “is unambiguous as to the filing requirements for one to run as a candidate for coroner,” Culbertson said. It lists seven education or work-related criteria for candidates. They must file an affidavit saying they meet one of them. Pitts and Graham didn’t do that. “Therefore, they failed to meet the requirements necessary to run as a candidate for coroner,” Culbertson said.

“We felt the judge made the correct decision,” Johnson said. “That was the point of bringing it to the court.” He noted that he had to fill out the same form.

Because of the missing information on the challengers’ forms, Culbertson said, he didn’t need to address issues raised by Graham’s attorney at a June 2 hearing in the case about the education requirement contained in the state law. It allows candidates to enroll in “a recognized forensic science degree or certification program which will be completed within one year of being elected to office.” It’s a provision that the head of the state Coroner’s Association says is unclear and which some state lawmakers who sponsored the legislation say needs to be changed.

Under state law, a Coroners Training Advisory Committee was created to determine which education programs are “recognized.” The committee, which is made up of the board members of the Coroners Association, picked one certification program, one run by the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators. Only people with 640 hours of death investigation experience who work for a coroner or medical examiner can apply.

Johnson was chairman of the Coroners Association in 2012 when the program was selected. “The purpose was to encourage even sitting coroners to get this certification,” he said. “We felt like we needed to establish a standard.”

Pitts and Graham each circled the item on the affidavit they filed with the county Office of Elections and Voter Registration. They left blank the line that provides space for candidates to say which program they have enrolled in. The form says “leave blank if N/A” and Pitts and Graham said they believed the line was not applicable because they didn’t need to enroll or complete the program until they were elected. Graham later amended his affidavit to show he was enrolled in a program, but the law requires the affidavit to be completed by the close of the filing period on March 30. Culbertson said they failed to provide the information required by law.

There are two similar suits pending in Laurens and Saluda counties. Challengers there filed affidavits saying they are enrolled in a program at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, the same one Pitts and Graham said they planned to take. It’s one that Dennis Fowler, current president of the S.C. Coroners Association, said in court filings is “recognized.” The university was once connected to the board of death investigator, but is now separate. Officials at the board say it has no course connected to its certification. They also say the St. Louis University course was never a training course.

“Up until earlier this year, ABMDI and St. Louis University were tied together,” Fowler said last month while attending the association’s annual meeting at Pawleys Plantation. “Obviously it has caused a lot of confusion.”

The Coroners Association plans to ask the legislature to clear up the law, but Fowler, who is coroner in Cherokee County, said the goal isn’t to protect incumbents. “There once were no qualifications for sheriff’ either,” he said. “Anyone off the street could walk into the election commission and file for sheriff. If it were a popularity contest, they might could win over someone with all the qualifications in the world.”

One candidate for coroner thinks the qualifications aren’t strict enough. Frank Barron, the Richland County coroner for 23 years, is running this year in Lexington County as the Constitution Party challenger to the incumbent Republican.

Barron also ran in 2012, the year legislation introduced by then-Sen. Jake Knotts, a Lexington County Republican, made the coroners training committee responsible for picking “recognized” science and certification programs. Knotts also proposed requiring that the experience to qualify for candidacy be within 10 years of filing. Barron had been out of office since 2000. “I’m confident that clause was put in there directed at me,” he said. He was running against a 35-year incumbent.

The clause was removed in committee, but Barron lost the election. “I thought the best thing to do is get on the ballot,” he said. “There are 180,000 registered voters. We should let them decide.”

Although Barron said he pushed for qualifications during seven terms as president of the Coroners Association, he said he doesn’t think they are tough enough. For instance, a law enforcement officer with two years of experience meets the current criteria. “It’s ridiculous,” Barron said. “It needs to be a lot stricter. We need a statewide medical examiner system.”

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