I Am Not Embarrassed by the Crimes of Others

On March 24, South Carolina law enforcement officials arrested the former mayor of Atlantic Beach, SC and the former town manager of that community, charging them with various felony and misdemeanor offenses. In the wake of their arrests, a friend emailed me a copy of the story and confessed that he was embarrassed because these two African American women, alleged community leaders, face these charges. In my response to him, I declared:

I am not embarrassed! But I am curious!

Being charged with a crime does not mean that the suspect is guilty. Remember, our system of jurisprudence claims that a person enters the courtroom cloaked in a presumption of innocence. The burden rests with the charging agency, in this case, The State of South Carolina, through its jurisdictional prosecutor, to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. As the judge will explain to the jury, assuming a plea bargain deal does not develop, a reasonable doubt is not based in fancy, or preference, but is a doubt that arises from a rational, reasonable and careful understanding and analysis of the evidence as presented in court. So let’s reserve judgment until all the evidence is in and the courts have spoken.

Here’s the background as quoted from a news account in a Myrtle Beach, SC newspaper: “Suspended Alantic Beach mayor Irene Armstrong and Town Manager Marcia Conner turned themselves in to State Law Enforcement Division authorities Monday morning (March 24, 2008). Armstrong and Conner were briefly jailed at J. Reuben Long Detention Center in Conway. They each posted $ 15,000 bail and were released. Judge Aaron Butler set their bonds . . .Gov. Mark Sanford issued an order Friday (March 21, 2008) to suspend Armstrong, one day after she was charged with three felony counts of bribery at elections and two misdemeanor counts of misconduct in office. Conner is charged with two counts of misconduct in office and one count of violating an employer’s obligation to police retirement funds.”

According to the Grand Jury indictment, Conner allegedly transferred money from the police retirement fund to the town’s General Fund. She also allegedly used seized drug trafficking money for General Fund expenses, as well. As well as being charged with collusion in the budgeting mess, the former Mayor, Armstrong is charged with bribing two voters with a total of $ 30 to vote for her brother who was campaigning for a seat on the town council at the time.

Conner, 50, was City Manager in Durham, NC from 2001 until she was forced to resign in 2004. An independent audit of city contracts revealed that Conner had apparently approved more than $ 270,000 in contracts without following proper bid procedures. In August 2007, she was candidate for the City Manager’s post in Oberline, OH, but withdrew herself from contention.

Now, let’s consider the story behind the story, based upon a brief interview I had last week with a member of the Atlantic Beach town council. First, though, consider a demographic profile of Atlantic Beach, SC, nicknamed The Black Pearl and located in Horry County, about 13 miles northeast of Myrtle Beach. According to the 2000 census, 351 people live in Atlantic Beach and 288 of them are African Americans. Of the 15-years-old and older population, 134 have never been married and 92 are currently married. Forty-nine of the 132 households in Atlantic Beach are headed by women, and 39 of them have children younger than 18-years–old. Thirty-three households have annual incomes of less than $ 10,000, while 97 families have annual incomes ranging from $ 10,000 to $ 74,900.

So Atlantic Beach is a cash-deficient community, but the community is real estate rich because this is one of the few underdeveloped areas of the Atlantic coast. Renters occupy 88 of the 132 occupied housing units, and 112 housing units are vacant, most of them–76–because they exist for seasonal, recreational or ocassional use.

The town council member I interviewed–a friend of mine, by the way–said the council had become increasingly frustrated because they could get no budget and operational costs information from either the Mayor or the Town Manager. This alleged “stone-walling” initiated an investigation by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED). The town council member told me: “The Armstrong family has become so accustomed to running this town however they wanted to, the idea of someone questioning their decisions made no sense to them. “Their arrogance was simply startling to me,” he said. “Frustrated by their refusal to answer our questions and to give us the information we needed, we appealed to the State of South Carolina for help.”

My friend who sent me the email message said he was embarrassed because these two African American women, so-called community leaders, were charged with these crimes. My response continued: But even if these two women are determined to be guilty as charged, I remain unembarrassed because crime is a matter of lack of character, not ethnicity. Statistics indicate that most convicted murderers are righthanded. so am I, but I’m not embarrassed by the fact that I share “righthandedness” with most convicted murderers. The majority of convicted rapists are males. So am I, but I am not embarrassed by the fact that I share gender with a majority of convicted rapists. I suggest, though I have seen no study to this effect, that most robbers and other thieves are sighted, not blind. So am I–sighted and not blind–but I am not embarrassed because I share that fact with most convicted thieves.

You see, crime is a way of thinking that justifies harming others to gain for self. Since I don’t share that way of thinking, everything else I might hold in common with convicted criminals is purely coincidental to being human. I refused to be embarrassed about that.

Now, back to being curious.

Why has this strip of land–Atlantic Beach–in one of the most attractive areas of the Golden Strand failed to met even minimum development standards? Why has a community with so much potential failed to achieve it? Why is the town’s general fund almost broke? Why is the Town Council virtually hampered because the four remaining members cannot achieve consensus? I will spend some time in Atlantic Beach this summer investigating these and scores of other questions. I’ll keep you posted.