Heated Debate Includes Legal Threats
By RON AIKEN
In a 9-5 vote following a nearly two-hour meeting Tuesday morning at Midlands Technical College, the Richland County Legislative Delegation moved to recommend that the Richland County Recreation board suspend executive director James Brown with pay.
The vote is non-binding. Yeas were Sens. John Courson (R-Richland), Joel Lourie (D-Richland) and Thomas McElveen (D-Sumter) and Reps. James Smith (D-Richland), Beth Bernstein (D-Richland), Mia McLeod (D-Richland), Kirkman Finlay (R-Richland). Proxy yeas were Reps. Nathan Ballentine (R-Richland) and Joe McEachern (D-Richland).
Nays were Sens. Darrell Jackson (D-Richland) and John Scott (D-Richland) and Reps. Leon Howard (D-Richland) and Jimmy Bales (D-Richland). The lone proxy nay was Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Richland).
Speaking to Quorum after the meeting, McLeod said concerns raised by her constituents were too strong to ignore.
“It was important for me to uphold the wishes of my constituents,” McLeod said. “I’ve gotten so many calls from people who don’t feel comfortable with what’s going on (at the Recreation Commission), relatives, friends, former co-workers.
“I hope that none of it is true, but I think the delegation should not wait until after an investigation to recommend what we think is reasonable and fair, because at the end of the day, there are still people working there under those conditions and services still need to be provided. If we have the responsibility of appointing, I think we should also make sure that the business of the people is being carried out in a fair and reasonable manner.”
Both Howard and Jackson tried to sway their colleagues into postponing a decision until after the law enforcement investigations were over.
“This thing is being investigated by three law enforcement agencies,” Jackson said. “What is the urgency of issuing a non-binding resolution?
“The commission can get this in the mail and they don’t even have to open the envelope. We ought to let the legal course run its course.”
“I have faith in the FBI, in SLED in the (Richland County) Sheriff’s Department. We asked them to investigate. Let’s wait until we know.”
It is precisely because all three of those law enforcement entities are investigating that requires the delegation to act, Lourie said.
“County council is holding back $8.6 million dollars from the recreation commission because they’ve lost confidence in them” Lourie said of Richland County Council’s decision earlier this month to freeze funding for next year until an audit fully can account for the agency’s spending.
“Our constituents have lost confidence. When the FBI, SLED and the sheriff’s department are all conducting thorough active investigations into multiple allegations of sexual harassment and wrongful termination and nepotism, I’m concerned for the children we send to these parks, the seniors, the employees.
“For us as a delegation to take no action, I’m not comfortable with that. I don’t know any way how that board and that office and that agency can continue to run with this cloud of uncertainty. On an advisory basis, I think … the director has to be suspended with or without pay until this investigation is complete.
“We can send a message to our commission members that taking no action is unacceptable.
Howard took issue to public statements earlier this year following a story by The Nerve in which Lourie, Smith and Bernstein publicly called for an immediate investigations into allegations of corruption, bribery, abuse of resources and nepotism at the special purpose district with a $13.4 million annual budget.
“I think it was wrong of you all to go out on TV and make the comments that you made, unfounded comments,” Howard said. “I don’t understand why this delegation is involved when there is an ongoing investigation. Allow the investigation to play itself out.
“You all do not know the damage that you have done to those commission members by coming out and making comments when you don’t have facts. You have destroyed their reputation, you have some of them being questioned by church members based on comments made by members of this delegation, comments you can’t substantiate.
“I see this delegation coming out and casting dispersions (sic) on Mr. Brown, of the commissioners, that you have no facts about.
Howard hinted that certain unspecified members of either the board of commissioners or the commission itself may pursue legal action against anyone who has been publicly critical of individuals and that some of those individuals have suffered health problems as a result of the negative publicity.
“When you go out and make a comment about a person’s character, it’s damaged,” Howard said. “You’ve damaged a person’s character, you’ve damaged their reputation, and I believe there’s going to be some effort to make some consequences to some people who have made comments in public about members of the commission and created health problems for their family members who are already having some problems. I’d caution y’all to be very careful not to make comments that you can’t back up because I think there’s going to be an attempt to go after people if you cannot prove the allegations.”
Lourie took immediate issue with Howard’s characterization of his efforts.
“Let’s go back a second,” Lourie said. “The media, not Joel Lourie, wrote about commission members and the director.
“At that point we wouldn’t be having an investigation, many of us called for an investigation starting with the sheriff, who then brought in SLED and the FBI.
“I have never, ever indicted any board member. What I have said is that this investigation needs to move forward and people either need to be brought to justice or have their names cleared. I believe that.
“But I don’t think this delegation should sit back and do nothing.”
Speaking to Quorum after the meeting, Bernstein agreed.
“I think it’s just a recommendation, but it’s important for us to act,” Bernstein said. “I’ve gotten so many emails and calls. I have to be responsible to my constituents.
“In business or anywhere, it’s generally accepted that you’re suspended with pay when there’s this kind of an investigation. What’s common practice for business should be common practice for us.”
Lourie said the seriousness of the charges and the scope of agencies investigating have forced the delegation to act.
“Many of us will say that he hasn’t been charged or indicted with anything, and I’m very respectful of that,” Lourie said. “But when you have a series of lawsuits, a long with criminal allegations, you’re either having a real unlucky time or there’s something that’s terribly wrong at the agency.”
Reach Ron Aiken at (803) 200-8809 or email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @QuorumColumbia. Like us on Facebook!