By Gregg Bragg, Senior Staff Writer for The Island Connection
The announcement from the United States Attorney’s Office on Tuesday Nov. 14 was straightforward and simple. “Former Town of Kiawah Officials Indicted for Wire Fraud,” read the banner, followed by, “Tumiko Rucker, age 42, of Johns Island, S.C., and Harrison Kenneth Gunnells, age 59, of Mount Pleasant, S.C., were charged in a 1-count Indictment with Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud, a violation of Title 18, United States Code, Sections 1349 and 1344. The maximum penalty that Rucker and Gunnells could receive is 20 years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $250,000. The case was investigated by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and is assigned to Assistant United States Attorney Rhett DeHart of the Charleston office for prosecution.” The statement was greeted with mixed feelings by Kiawah residents. One neighbor quoted John Bannister Gibson (17801853); “[the] Millstones of Justice turn exceedingly slow, but grind exceedingly fine,” suggesting he had been more concerned by other topics than waiting for the clock to strike midnight on the case. Others have actively pursued information on the case during town council meetings from the Town of Kiawah Island which bore little fruit. TOKI representatives insisted they would not let the case fall through the cracks and that it was near completion as recently as April of this year, but had no details to share. The announcement from the USAO begs a review of history.
The trouble began with rumors, as it so often does in a small town. The murmurs grew into questions asked at public meetings of TOKI in 2014 regarding the amount of time Rucker was spending at Sea Island Comprehensive Health Care, as previously reported. Documents available through the Citizen Audit website confirmed Rucker received compensation for 40 hrs/week with the organization plus another 10 hrs/week with Sea Island Community Development fund among others as early as 2012, while receiving more in compensation from TOKI than South Carolina pays its governor. Spring of 2015 witnessed the mayor announcing that Rucker’s contract with the town would not be renewed when it expired in September of that year. It was subsequently announced Rucker would be taking a leave of absence, presumably to exhaust accrued vacation time.
Consequently, TOKI hired Dixon, Hughes, and Goodman to conduct a forensic audit of the town’s books for the previous two years, and both Rucker and Gunnells resigned shortly after. The accounting firm added an additional two years to its search based on what they found in the first two. The audit stopped with the books from 2011 because materials beyond that point were deemed too fragmented for examination. Results of the forensic audit alleged Rucker and Gunnells had conspired to glean over $200,000 from TOKI beyond their approved salaries, and had taken steps to cover their tracks. Further, it was discovered Rucker paid four TOKI employees, (Jim Jordan, Aaron Givens, Rusty Lameo and Petra Reynolds) nearly $100,000 beyond their salaries over the same period. The four staff members said they were unaware of the extra pay, and signed agreements to repay the town avoiding further scrutiny.
The rest of the evidence was turned over in July of 2015 to members of law enforcement including; Assistant United States Attorney Rhett DeHart, Special agent Bob Derr of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Joe Albayalde of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. Two years and four months later, the evidence provided yielded the criminal indictments noted above. Tim Kulp (Gunnells’ attorney) and Lauren Williams (Rucker’s attorney) did not reply to emailed requests for comments last week after the indictments were handed down. Assistant U.S. Attorney Rhett DeHart confirmed the penalties associated with the alleged crimes would be applied separately to each of the two individuals in a phone call with The Island Connection, but still doesn’t feel he is at liberty to discuss the case. He declined to say what penalties he would be seeking in the case or to explain why “wire fraud” was what they ended up charging. Asking what took so long was unavoidable, but DeHart didn’t have time to talk about that one. “I can’t answer that. I need to run if you got some questions I’m happy to answer them but I don’t want to get into a discussion, what’s your next question.” As of this writing a court date is not available.