Testimony ends in Clarendon coroner qualification case

Judge to rule ASAP; Defendant seems to go back on what she said in interview with The Item

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MANNING — The decision on whether LaNette Samuels-Cooper is qualified to serve as a coroner is now up to Third Circuit Court Judge Ferrell Cothran.

Samuels-Cooper won the Clarendon County Democratic primary in June to get on the ticket in November's general election, and there was no Republican candidate. Before the primary, Clarendon County Coroner Bucky Mock raised concern about whether Samuels-Cooper is qualified to be a coroner in South Carolina, claiming she does not meet the requirements she said she does on her filing affidavit, on which she said she has one year of experience in death investigations. Mock filed a lawsuit against Samuels-Cooper after he lost in June.

Witness: LaNette Samuels-Cooper

For more than four hours Friday, attorneys Ronnie Sabb and Kimberly Barr, who represent Samuels-Cooper, and attorney Robert E. Tyson Jr., who represents Mock, argued about Samuels-Cooper’s qualifications.

The first person called to testify Friday morning was Samuels-Cooper.

During her testimony, which lasted more than 90 minutes, Samuels-Cooper stated emphatically that she thinks her 13 years of experience working in the coroner’s office gives her the experience to serve as the county’s coroner.

When Sabb asked Samuels-Cooper whether she filled in the proper boxes on an affidavit she submitted to the South Carolina Democratic Party on March 19, she said yes. The affidavit filed on March 19 has no boxes checked about what experience she has.

“I think I did,” she said.

Samuels-Cooper told her attorney the chairman of the state’s Democratic party, Trav Robertson, called to tell her that her March 19 affidavit was not filled out properly. She told the court Robertson asked her questions on her experience during that conversation.

“He told me who he was and asked questions about what I did,” Samuels-Cooper said. “He told me (that I needed) to check box 10 and (to) submit the affidavit.”

By checking box No. 10, Samuels-Cooper said she has a four-year degree and one year of experience as a death investigator.

For the bulk of her testimony, Samuels-Cooper was questioned about her experience as a death investigator during her 13-year tenure as an administrative assistant in the coroner’s office.

Samuels-Cooper told the court she performed many of the duties the deputy coroners and the coroner typically completed, including witnessing a couple of autopsies, the delivery of a blood sample to the pathologist’s office in Charleston, trips to the hospital to meet with the deceased person’s family members, soliciting subpoenas, acquiring information from local and state law enforcement agencies and even, on occasion, accompanying temporary deputy coroners to the scene of a fatality to make sure they performed their duties correctly.

During his cross examination of Samuels-Cooper, Tyson handed her copies of news stories that appeared in local newspapers and asked her if she ever mentioned during the political forums that were held prior to the election that she had no death investigation experience, a statement that was documented in a story printed in The Sumter Item  during the election campaign.

“I probably told them I had some experience,” Samuels-Cooper said.

Going back through a 12-minute phone interview dated May 16 between Item  Executive Editor Kayla Robins and Samuels-Cooper, transcribed, typed notes and an audio recording shows Robins asked, "Have you ever led a death investigation or, like, been out in the field for one?" at the 3:30 mark. Samuels-Cooper responds, "No, I haven't. No, I haven't. But what I have done, I have gathered the information that the coroner or the deputy coroner needed to finish the case."

Samuels-Cooper told the court during Barr's questioning that, beginning on Jan. 24, she was an employee of Clarendon County.

Tyson asked the defendant if she was originally hired by her brother, the late Hayes F. Samuels Jr., who served as coroner until his death in mid-January. After Samuels died, Mock, who had been a deputy coroner for 21 years and is a registered nurse, was appointed by Gov. Henry McMaster to serve the remaining term as coroner.

“You were hired by the coroner, your brother?” Tyson asked. “What authority did you have (when you) were hired by your brother?”

Samuels-Cooper responded that she worked under secretarial services for the coroner’s office when her brother in office. She also said she performed many functions typically done by the acting deputy coroner or coroner. Samuels-Cooper said she never signed death certificates while performing coroner duties.

Questions about Samuels-Cooper’s employment surfaced again at the end of the hearing when Cothran asked questions from the bench.

“Mrs. Samuels-Cooper testified that she was not a county employee until January 2018,” Cothran stated.

The defendant’s attorney told the court his client’s job was listed as part time up until January 2018.

“The paycheck went to Hayes Samuels, and he paid his employees from that,” Sabb told the court.

Witness: Patricia Pringle

Clarendon County Democratic Party Chairwoman Patricia Pringle took the stand at 11:20 a.m. Pringle’s testimony dealt with Samuels-Cooper’s affidavit and whether the county or state Democratic party was responsible for certifying her document.

“Once we are notified that the candidate has filed and paid the filing fee, we then forward (the affidavit) to the state Democratic party,” Pringle said. “They will determine if the person meets the qualification.”

Pringle also said that when Samuels-Cooper submitted her affidavit to her on March 19 that she glanced at it but did not notice that the proper boxes were not checked until she (Pringle) submitted the document to the state Democratic party.

“On March 19, she brought (the affidavit) to me,” Pringle said. “I saw no box checked. I sent (it) to the state and noted to them about her qualifications because no boxes were checked.”

Pringle said this occurred on April 4.

Pringle also told the court that Mock talked to her before the election about his concerns that Samuels-Cooper wasn’t qualified.

“He wasn’t too concerned,” Pringle said.

“Did you do anything about that?” Tyson asked Pringle.

“I didn’t,” she responded.

Pringle said that during the political forums that were held by the county Democratic party to introduce the primary’s candidates to the public that Samuels-Cooper’s qualifications were questioned.

“Questions were asked of the candidates (at the forums),” Pringle said. “(The question) was brought up about her not meeting the qualifications.”

“Did you raise concerns with Mr. Robertson?” Tyson asked. 

“He contacted Mrs. Samuels-Cooper. Then she talked with him and sent in an amended affidavit,” Pringle responded.

Her official April 4 filing, which has the No. 10 box checked, was notarized after the official filing period closed for candidates. Cothran ruled at the beginning of the day Mock could not challenge her through that path because he did not formerly protest the election. He said the final decision would have to be based on her qualifications as a coroner.

Cothran told both parties he will render a decision in a timely manner.

Sharron Haley is a freelance reporter for The Sumter Item who covers Clarendon County. She is also the campaign manager for Bucky Mock.