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Tanner: Officer's wife sent 'lewd' e-mail

March 14, 2002

An e-mail that contained an image of bare female breasts entered the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office's computer system after it was sent there by the wife of a police lieutenant as a joke, Sheriff P.J. Tanner said Wednesday.

County Council has asked 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Randolph Murdaugh III to look into whether lewd images on e-mails traced to the computer of Deputy County Administrator Buz Boehm violated state law.

Boehm received the e-mails in February and forwarded them to other county staff members, including County Administrator John Kachmar, according to computer files given to Beaufort County Council Chairman Tom Taylor on Monday by Burton resident Tommy O'Brien.

Boehm has declined to comment on the issue.

According to the files received by County Council members Monday, one of the e-mails forwarded to Boehm contained a picture of a woman's bare breasts and first entered the county's e-mail system in the Sheriff's Office.

Tanner said Wednesday that Ruth Johnson, wife of Lt. Scott Johnson, who heads the Sheriff's Office K-9 unit, sent the e-mail to her husband as a joke, and that's how it got into the Sheriff's Office computer system.

Johnson then forwarded the e-mail to Capt. David Randall, with whom he shares an office at the Sheriff's Office's Hilton Head Island station, Tanner said.

Randall subsequently forwarded the e-mail to Deputy Chief Mike Hatfield, second-in-command of the Sheriff's Office, Tanner said.

"It's hard for anyone to control what they're receiving," Tanner said. "But you do have control over what you send out and who you send it to."

Someone in the Sheriff's Office sent the attachment to Mark Fitzgibbons, head of the Beaufort County Detention Center, according to the documents, and Fitzgibbons forwarded it to Boehm. Tanner said he does not know who forwarded the e-mail to Fitzgibbons, and the jail director has declined to comment.

Tanner said he does not plan to launch a criminal investigation into the matter, but will pursue the issue to see what administrative actions he should take. The sheriff said he does not think the e-mail violates the state obscenity law. But he said he is looking into the matter as a possible violation of county computer policy, and whether the e-mail could be grounds for sexual harassment complaints.

"What one person may feel is vulgar, another person may think is funny. Most jokes are not politically correct, because politically correct jokes are not funny," Tanner said. "My concern is that they shouldn't be sending out these types of e-mails, shouldn't be doing it on county time and using county property."

Tanner said he has yet to receive any sexual harassment complaints regarding the e-mails.

"I'll deal with reprimands and will make those calls based on the seriousness of the problem," he said. "I want to be fair about it, but I don't want to overreact to it either."

Policy violation

Taylor and Kachmar have said the e-mails violated the county's employee computer policy because they contained obscene images.

The county's computer policy, which must be signed by all employees with access to computers, states users "may not access the Internet to disseminate sexually explicit, sexually suggestive (obscene or pornographic) or illegal material in any facility operated under the auspices of Beaufort County Council."

South Carolina law states it is illegal to knowingly disseminate obscene material. State law defines "obscene" as "lewd exhibition, actual or simulated, of the genitals Г‰" among other things.

Kachmar is due to report to County Council at its March 25 meeting with the results of his query into the matter.

By PETE NARDI, Special to The Gazette. Copyright © 2002 The Beaufort Gazette


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