Meet Charlie Lybrand. With 24 years' experience working in Charleston County government, he is one of the longest-serving Republicans in the Lowcountry. But you've probably never heard of him.
Lybrand holds the elected office of Register Mesne Conveyance, a holdover title from English common law (that middle word is pronounced "mean," by the way). As the RMC, he is responsible for recording land titles, deeds, mortgages, liens, and other documents related to property transactions throughout the county. He likes to joke that he has the second-oldest job in the world.
"From time immemorial, people have always wanted to know the boundaries to their property," Lybrand says.
This November, Lybrand is up for re-election for what he says will be his final four-year term, and his Democratic opponent in the race, real estate broker Patrick Bell, is coming out swinging with a pointed critique of Lybrand's tenure and an accusation of improper accounting.
"What initially drew my attention to the RMC office was the outdated website, not being able to search on it easily or at all depending on what hardware or software you were using," Bell says.
Charleston County RMC records have been online since 1997, but the website is still incomplete. Searchable records only go back to 1978, and digital images of the records only go as far back as 1997. Everything else must be picked up in person. Office workers are in the process of digitizing the complete backlog, which dates to 1719 in musty tomes labeled "Register of the Province of South Carolina."
The online search function still has occasional bugs. When Charleston County updated its website several weeks ago, many searches on the site returned error messages. And up until last week, it was only possible to use the online search on a Windows-equipped computer. Lybrand credits one office employee who had the idea of having the website generate PDFs on demand for Apple computers. He says it took 18 months to write the scripts and update the website accordingly.
Aside from real estate professionals, reporters, and the idly curious, many people will never use the RMC website. So why does it matter to voters?
"It's not something that people are going to notice in their everyday lives," Bell says, "but it's something that when one of their most expensive purchases happens, it matters." According to Bell, house closings are sometimes delayed when real estate attorneys can't access deeds and mortgages for a property.
Land and property transactions have to be recorded in Lybrand's office, which is in a county building near the Four Corners of Law downtown, and attorneys often hire abstractors to research properties at the RMC office. Recording real estate paperwork is no small task. According to Lybrand, his employees recorded more than 106,000 documents in fiscal year 2014, taking in nearly $17.7 million in deposits from transaction fees and record copying charges ($11.2 million went to the state; the rest went to the county). Lybrand says that in his final term in office, he would like to put scanners at every work station in the office and integrate them with existing workflow software.
Bell, on the other hand, has bigger plans.
"The records are just in a terrible state of order," Bell says. "The paralegals and abstractors just have the worst time trying to dig through the documents that should be very well-organized. They should all be digitized, they should all be backed up, and they're not." By Bell's own admission, he does not have a background in IT.
Whoever wins, RMC is a fairly lucrative full-time post: County records indicate that Lybrand received $97,968 for his efforts last year.
The election has drawn some outside attention. Bell is touting endorsements from Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. and the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors, and he also has the Charleston County Democratic Party in his corner.
Last week, Charleston County Democratic Chairman Brady Quirk-Garvan sent the City Paper an email detailing what he believed to be a "major issue" in the RMC's office.
"Charlie Lybrand has a slush fund/private bank account that has never been audited by the county," Quirk-Garvan wrote. "This means we have no idea what he's been doing with taxpayer money."
The account in question is known as the Overage/Forfeited Funds Account, and it comes from people who pay a little too much for the RMC office's services. Here's an example: According to one receipt from Sept. 23, attorney H. Michael White Jr. owed the RMC $2,284.50, but he wrote a check for $2,288.50, resulting in an overage of $4. Rather than return the $4 to White, the RMC deposited it into its overage account.
In an email to Lybrand expressing his approval for the current overage system, White wrote, "I appreciate that the RMC Office does not return the documents unrecorded. I have encountered other counties that will return the documents unrecorded if the check for the recording fee was not in the correct amount."
Lybrand says the account was created in 1978 during the administration of RMC Hazel Crosby, well before he took his place behind the RMC desk. According to Lybrand, the account gained $4,012.19 in overages during FY 2014. He says the account is held with Bank of America, and he says his office uses the account to buy things like day planner books bearing the RMC logo, dish gardens for county employees who are sick or have recently had children, and a high-resolution camera for scanning in documents.
The problem is the rest of Charleston County government has no way of confirming those statements because the account has never been audited. Lybrand says he hasn't been hiding anything. He says county internal auditor Bob Stewart knew about the account all along, but he never chose to include it in the audits.
"They just didn't audit it. After every audit, I was telling [my secretary], 'Did Bob say anything about the overage account?' And she'd say, 'No,' and I'd say, 'Huh.' Well, it never crossed my mind at any point during that time to ask him to audit something that he chose not to audit," Lybrand says.
This summer, with an election just around the bend, Bell contacted Charleston County Council member Colleen Condon, a fellow Democrat, and asked her if she knew anything about the unaudited account. Condon told him she didn't, but she would look into it.
"All public funds have an obligation to be reported back to the public on how they're being spent," Condon says. "Council buys flowers for families when they die, but it's reported and audited."
Condon sent an email to Stewart about the overage account, and last week, for the first time ever, Stewart conducted an audit of the account. He will present his findings to County Council's Audit Committee on Thurs. Oct. 2.
Lybrand, who served on County Council for four years before being elected as RMC in 1994, says the whole investigation is a symptom of the "silly season" leading up to November.
"Colleen Condon is a political hack," Lybrand says, "and I'm happy for you to quote me on that."
Welcome to election season.
This story was written with the help of email records provided by Charlie Lybrand and the Charleston County Democratic Party.
The original version of this article misidentified the role of an abstractor. We regret the error.