South Carolina Attorney General hands over Charleston case

Tony Bartelme
Charleston Post and Courier
11 Oct 2001


Condon gives up Charleston Five case 1st Circuit’s Walter Bailey to prosecute union members on rioting charges

Accusing labor unions of creating a “sly smoke screen” to divert attention from last year’s waterfront riot, S. C. Attorney General Charlie Condon Wednesday transferred prosecution of the so-called Charleston Five case from his office to a Dorchester County solicitor. Condon wrote a letter to 1st Circuit Solicitor Walter Bailey giving Bailey “full authority and complete discretion to make all prosecutorial decisions.”

Condon added, “This appointment to you removes the focus from the person who is prosecuting the case and returns the focus to where it belongs - the true facts of the case.”

Condon’s move was the latest twist in a case that in union circles has emerged as an international cause. Five members of the International Longshoremen’s Association have been indicted on felony rioting charges in the Jan.20,2000, clash with police outside the State Ports Authority’s Columbus Street Terminal in Charleston.

Condon’s withdrawal came after attorneys for the five dockworkers filed motions asking a judge to disqualify the attorney general from the case. The motions are scheduled to be heard this morning before Circuit Judge Victor Rawl.

Filed by attorneys Andrew Savage, Lionel Lofton and Michael Tigar, one motion argued that Condon’s office issued inflammatory press releases and used the clash as the basis for a paid political ad for George Bush’s presidential campaign. In the ad, Condon said, “the Charleston union riot reminds us why South Carolina is a right-to-work state.” “This is clear example of misconduct,” attorneys said in the motion. “. . . The attorney general is letting his political interests guide his handling of the case, and thereby acting under a disabling conflict of interest.”

Attorneys also said that during a recent appearance on Channel 5’s Talkback segment, Condon used “his platform to inflame the public by comparing this case to the recent national tragedy at the World Trade Center.”

According to a transcript of the segment, Condon said, “I’m not anti-union, but I’m anti ends justifying the means, as we know these terrorists that killed so many people, that’s exactly their argument.”

“That comment is disgraceful,” said the dockworkers’ motion.

Condon wrote Bailey, “The reason I am assigning these cases to you is to remove any charge, albeit false and totally unwarranted, that the prosecution of these cases is biased or undertaken for any reason other than to secure the ends of justice.”

Condon said that since the melee, the ILA “has desperately tried to divert attention from the tragic events of that evening” by questioning police tactics.

He said Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. recently asked him to transfer prosecution of the case to a local solicitor. “It is clear,” Condon wrote Bailey, “that we need to keep the focus on the cases themselves rather than being diverted by defense lawyer-created, ILA-sponsored and politician-instigated sideshows.”

The roots of the Charleston Five case stretch back to late 1999, when Nordana Line, a small Danish ocean carrier, began using non-union dockworkers instead of the ILA longshoremen. After the riot, eight people were arrested on city trespassing charges. A judge later tossed out those charges when the longshoremen agreed to hold a blood drive and do other community service. Condon then sought indictments against five longshoremen on felony riot and assault charges. Rioting is punishable by up to five years in prison. The five longshoremen indicted are: Kenneth Jefferson, Elijah Ford Jr., Peter Edgerton, Ricky Simmons and Peter Washington Jr.

The ILA, AFL-CIO and other labor organizations made the Charleston 5 campaign one of their top priorities, raising more than $400,000 for a legal defense fund. Bright yellow “Free the Charleston 5” signs, bumper stickers and billboards popped up all over the region, and labor unions across the world have vowed to take action the day the men go on trial. Riley wrote Condon Sept.24, urging him to turn over the cases to the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office. Riley said “what happened that night is inexcusable,” describing the melee as “a civil protest that got out of hand, way out of hand.” But the mayor added that the prosecution “should be resolved far short of these defendants proceeding to trial on the current charges against them.”

Riley’s comments echoed those of police investigators who recently told The Post and Courier that they thought the charges against the longshoremen were too harsh. Condon could have assigned the case to 9th Circuit Solicitor Ralph Hoisington, whose territory includes Charleston and Berkeley counties. But Condon chose Bailey because he “doesn’t live in Charleston and is totally independent of the process,” said Robb McBurney, the attorney general’s spokesman. “We just want people who throw rocks, bottles and railroad ties at police to be prosecuted and have their day in court.”

Bailey could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Kenneth Riley, president of ILA Local 1422, was in Atlanta on Wednesday and said he wasn’t sure what impact Condon’s move would have on the case. “I hope it means that we’re in better shape than we were.”