By Tyler Cooper, FTC senior researcher
It appears that South Carolina U.S. District Judge Joe Dawson is not out of the woods yet.
On Oct. 19, Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Roger Gregory ordered that the ethics probe facing the Trump-appointed judge be assigned to “a special committee for an investigation and report to the judicial council.”
The order stems from the formal complaint filed by FTC’s Gabe Roth on Feb. 16. The basis for the complaint was an Employment Contract Separation Agreement Judge Dawson signed with Charleston County, his former employer, just before his elevation to the federal bench last December.
The agreement would have entitled Dawson to a contingency fee for an ongoing opioid lawsuit and was written in a way in which Dawson may have been expected to continue to provide legal advice to the county after he became a judge.
Those two clauses of the contract have largely been removed, but they shouldn’t have been included in the first place. What’s more, contract was debated and rewritten during executive session — i.e., in private and not during a public county meeting.
Of the changes to the contract, Roth told the Post and Courier, “I was not expecting the contract to be rewritten [in a way that took the unethical sections out so quickly] after I filed the complaint, and I was about 85 percent satisfied with what happened.”
The changes were apparently not enough to satisfy Chief Judge Gregory 100 percent, however. He explained in the order, “[u]pon review of this judicial complaint and the judge’s response thereto, I find that the complaint is not subject to dismissal under 28 U.S.C. § 352(b)[.]”
28 U.S.C. § 352(b)(2) permits a Chief Judge to conclude a proceeding if he “finds that appropriate corrective action has been taken.”
The order concludes with Gregory stating he will be recused from further involvement in the matter, and delegates the Chief Judge’s further responsibilities to Circuit Judge Paul V. Niemeyer.
This is consistent with a Judicial Conference rule that states that once you, as a chief judge, have weighed in on a conduct matter, you shouldn’t participate in subsequent adjudication.
No timetable for further resolution has been announced, and the order has still not been listed on the court’s website.
In light of the order, the editorial board of the Post and Courier has called on Judge Joe Dawson to take additional corrective action to end the probe, even if that means he returns some or all of the $216,000 owed to him by the terms of his separation agreement with the county.