Angela McCall-Tanner saw the inner workings of the 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office, working in the office for 12 years, including five under current solicitor Duffie Stone.
She said she has learned a lot since leaving the office in 2011 to first run her own private practice and then serve as a Beaufort County magistrate from 2014 until late March. Seeing justice from all sides of the courtroom, she felt compelled to run against her former boss.
“There’s a need now. I see it and I want to address it,” McCall-Tanner said. “There are things that are broken in the current Solicitor’s Office that need more effective leadership to fix.”
She was first hired by former solicitor Randolph Murdaugh in 1999, rising to become the office’s first female assistant solicitor. When fellow assistant solicitor Stone was appointed new solicitor in 2006, he named McCall-Tanner his deputy solicitor.
She said she saw issues in the office under Stone that have grown worse since she left.
“I don’t believe the attorneys who are there are getting the support they need,” she said. “In 2015, they barely had a 50 percent conviction rate on jury trials. That comes down to bad case selection and case prep.”
“They have lost too many senior attorneys and they are lacking mentorship,” McCall-Tanner added. “In the middle of all that, the office itself has become more isolated than ever.”
McCall-Tanner said Stone has created a disconnect between the office and law enforcement that can’t exist for the attorneys to have the best possible chance to prosecute convictions.
“I first saw it here in Beaufort County, but as I toured Jasper, Allendale, Colleton and Hampton [counties], I heard the same thing over and over,” she said. “These officers, they want to know what’s going on in their cases and there’s little cooperation happening.”
She had a unique insight to the issues facing area law enforcement, seeing the frustration from her husband, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner. While some have questioned whether that relationship is a conflict of interest, McCall-Tanner said the couple has forged a clear distinction between home and work over their 15-year marriage that can only help her address the issues.
That question has come up before. During one case, McCall-Tanner said she faced a legal challenge from a defense attorney arguing to have her removed due to conflict of interest. Three separate circuit judges ruled there was no conflict.
“We were married for 10 of the 12 years I was at the Solicitor’s Office, while I was in private practice and while I was magistrate. It’s a unique situation and a legitimate concern,” she said. “But the reality is law enforcement and prosecutors need to have a close relationship. We must share information for the system to work. P.J. and I have worked hard to create a strong marriage and strong communication that serves me well at home and at work.”
It’s a lack of communication from the current solicitor that troubles McCall-Tanner so much.
“There’s a real disconnect between the office and law enforcement. We all have to work together. We have to talk to investigators and work the case united,” she said. “Officers need probable cause for an arrest but the prosecutors need to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt, so they need that communication, or else there’s a huge gap in case preparation.
“To not utilize their expertise in meeting with witnesses and victims, it’s just not how the system works best,” she said. “The solicitor has alienated the office from the experts who want to help and who need to be a bigger part of the cases.”
McCall-Tanner believes Stone has devoted too much time to sitting on boards and organizations that have taken him to Columbia and other places, creating a lack of focus on prosecuting cases. On top of that, she believes Stone is overstepping the purpose of the office by creating a redundant investigator and intel division within the office.
“I sent a Freedom of Information Act request that Stone ignored. I wanted to know what kind of budget resources the office has. He asked Beaufort County for another budget increase in 2013-14 that he did not get. But he’s added a case investigator, a case agent, a communications officer, an intel division, all positions that pay between $50,000 and $70,000 per year,” McCall-Tanner said.
“And at the same time, he’s supposedly losing prosecutors while he’s added duplicate services. Law enforcement are your investigators. They need to be utilized first and foremost,” she said. “I hear it across all five counties consistently. Law enforcement hear very little about their cases until they read about it three months down the road when they go to trial. That’s a flawed system, and it needs to be fixed.”
McCall-Tanner said she is trying to make her campaign about facts, not mudslinging. But in fighting an incumbent, she has an increased challenge to educate voters why a change needs to be made.
“I talk to many folks around the region and many don’t know what the solicitor is or does, so we start from there, because if they don’t know the job, they wouldn’t know why a change needs to be made,” she said. “But I truly believe that the incumbent has made the office more about him than the needs of the people, and that needs to change. Boards and commissions are lovely for the resume, but they don’t get the real work done in the courthouse.”
McCall-Tanner pointed to Jasper County specifically as an example.
“At one of our election forums, we had a mother from Jasper County ask a question. Her son was murdered and when the case went to trial, neither the solicitor or deputy solicitor were there to try the case. The defense had a high-powered, highly successful attorney in Jack Swerling. The prosecution was led by a junior attorney with four years of experience. She asked the incumbent, ‘Why weren’t you there?’ And he tried to sidestep and talk about the challenges of the office but never answered the question. It’s because it’s indefensible not to be there. It’s one of unfortunately too many examples where the office has lost focus on who the office serves.”
McCall-Tanner said she knew change needed to happen, but at first, she was not sure she was ready for the political side of running for the job of solicitor.
“I had a friend say to me, ‘Think about it. When you were there, it’s clear you loved the job. Your eyes light up when you talk about the challenges and privilege of leading prosecutions. You’d do it for all the right reasons.’ That friend was right,” she said.
Outside of gearing up to run an election, McCall-Tanner said her biggest obstacle in entering the race was convincing her husband to cover her car payment while she was unemployed.
“He knew the questions we’d face, and he just wanted to make sure I was ready for how hard this would be and the conflict questions, to truly understand the challenges and know why I want to run,” she said. “I told him about a fella I ran into at the store. He introduced himself, said he had sat on a jury in a murder case I was prosecuting several years ago. He said he remembered looking over as the verdict was read and how emotional I got hearing the plea in our favor.
“My first thought was, ‘How embarrassing.’ Because many will say you have to be without emotion in this job. But I don’t agree. No, that’s exactly why I’m doing this. I care, I want to do right by every victim and every witness.”
She won over her husband — those who know Tanner know the story was not necessary. No one believes in his wife’s talents and skills more.
“He’s paying the car payment, he says, until I win. And it’s been an uphill battle for sure. We were a long shot to start. I’d go in to speak to a club or organization that had already hosted the incumbent and were won over by his charm,” she said. “And I know I’m an intense person because I care about representing the people right. But I fight charm with facts, and we’ve made up a lot of ground here the more folks hear the facts.”
Some may look at McCall-Tanner’s intensity against Stone’s charm as an unwinnable mismatch, but the challenger says she has shown voters her passion to represent them as they deserve.
“The incumbent tells everyone about how many wins he has. I couldn’t tell you how many wins, but I can tell you every case I’ve lost,” she said. “I learn from those losses and because of that, I don’t have very many. They drive me to keep excelling and to represent the people with everything I have and that’s how I will run the Solicitor’s Office if I earn that privilege.”