Norman Jackson-sponsored project improperly paid $77K to design consultant who now runs $150K-yr foundation
By RON AIKEN
On March 16, 2010, Richland County Councilman Norman Jackson made a motion to “pursue purchasing all properties associated with Caughman Creek using Hospitality Tax funds for recreational, historical, and conservation purposes.”
Ten days later the weed-covered, semi-abandoned property in Lower Richland county that last sold for $90,000 back in 2003 had a new buyer at $605,000, a buyer who wasn’t interested in the property until a realtor friend “told him” to buy it.
By the time the county finally bought the property from the new owner in November 2011, the price reached $1 million.
In eight years, a 43-acre chunk of land at 1151 Old Garners Ferry Rd. that hadn’t been used commercially since 1985 had grown in value by $910,000 by virtue of little else other than Jackson’s interest and his well-publicized dreams of turning Caughman Pond (renamed Pinewood Lake Park) into a tourist attraction.
But the sale price alone wasn’t the end of large sums of taxpayer money being poured into the harshly criticized development other councilmembers jokingly refer to as “Norman’s Kingdom,” it was only the beginning.
And none of it – $1.4 million in Phase I work so far with another $8 million already set aside by council for Phase II – has been done legally.
A RICH HISTORY
In its heyday from the 1930s through the 1950s, Caughman Pond in lower Richland County was a community hotspot as the location of the Caughman Brothers Swim and Dance Pavilion.
“I learned to swim there,” said Richland County councilman Greg Pearce. “I loved that place.”
The emergence of public swimming pools, facility disrepair and increasing pollution from Mill Creek eventually made swimming unpopular, if not unsafe, by the early 1970s, though the opening of The Bounty restaurant in 1975 renewed community interest.
Famous locally for being a replica of the namesake British sailing vessel with tables looking out hatches onto the water and skiff rides around the pond for kids, the Bounty had a popular 10-year run before closing for good in late 1985 and subsequently being burned as a training exercise for firemen.
In the decades that followed, however, the property sat mostly idle as economic and community interest – like its former glory – became a thing of the past.
When owner Douglas Caughman died in early 2008, the property went up for sale by his estate attorney and sat without a buyer for the next two years. When it finally sold in March 2010, the only thing noteworthy was that anyone wanted it at all.
Longtime local developer David Jordan of L & J Construction said he remembered hearing it had sold.
“I thought, ‘Why in the hell did (Gwinn) buy that dog?,” Jordan told Quorum.
He found out why when he opened the newspaper a week or so later.
“I saw where Richland County had decided to purchase it,” Jordan said. “I immediately thought, ‘Well, I guess he knew something I didn’t.”
When reached Tuesday afternoon, realtor Ken Steiner of Phil Chappell Realty admitted John Gwinn wasn’t looking to buy the land when Steiner called him.
“(Gwinn) wasn’t interested, I just called him and told him he needed to buy it,” Steiner said. “I knew the lawyer handling Doug (Caughman)’s estate, he was a personal friend and I handled it for them.”
Asked why he told Gwinn, who could not be reached for this story, Steiner wouldn’t elaborate.
“It was just a good piece of property,” he said before excusing himself from the call.
From Jackson’s initial motion in March 2010 to the final sale in 2011, the project bounced around council’s Administration and Finance Committee as its members examined various ways of financing the project, examined the appraisals and evaluated the risk.
Council members say the delays frustrated Jackson, who declined to answer questions from Quorum about the project.
“He was hot,” Pearce said of Jackson. “From the get-go he’s wanted everything on this project done yesterday.”
He wasn’t the only one. In an October 2010 letter to then-county administrator Milton Pope obtained by Quorum, Steiner was eager to sell the property at what he considered a deal for the county.
Citing appraisals for the entire property listing the combined value as $1.4 million (appraisals that used Gwinn’s March purchase price), Steiner said his client would be willing to sell 61.72 acres for $1.2 million.
“We would like a commitment on the sale of this property by October 20 (2010) at the price indicated,” Steiner wrote in the letter signed by himself and Gwinn.
Jackson, Steiner and Gwinn finally got their wish in November 2011, when $900,000 of hospitality tax money and another $100,000 in Conservation Commission funds purchased 49.74 acres of the property not including the dam – a move that would prove wise when the flooding of October 2015 broke the circa-1918 structure and was shown to have contributed to the breach of another dam downstream.
‘NOTHING ABOUT THIS WAS DONE RIGHT’
With Jackson already upset the purchase took so long to execute, he was eager to see dirt turned.
Following the sale, in May 2012 council approved a $50,000 study to determine how best to utilize the site, and in early 2013 Chao & Associates brought the study before council with proposals ranging from $1.1-$4.2 million.
Among the study’s claims were that the park could draw “in excess of 50,000 recreation visitors annually” due to the park’s “historical value,” “unique rural character” and that “Lower Richland County is the largest contiguous mass of pristine farmland within a 15-minute drive of a state capitol or major metropolitan city on the East Coast.” The study projected the park’s economic impact to be $2 million per year on the local economy, with the “largest direct effect” in hotels and restaurants.
Armed only with a notice to proceed, Chao began work on Phase I in the summer of 2013 without the job having been bid out as required by law for any project over $15,000, Quorum has learned.
Said a Richland County employee with knowledge of the county’s procurement process, “there was no way (Chao) should have started doing that work or that the county should have paid for it after they did,” she said. “They completely superseded the procurement process.”
Quorum submitted multiple Freedom of Information Act Requests from Richland County for a contract or contracts with Chao for work at Pinewood Lake Park. None have been produced.
“You put a project out to bid, you solicit responses, review the responses, determine the awardee, issue an award statement, the county does contract then, after the contract, you get a notice to proceed,” she said. “That’s the process. Do you think other firms might have liked that work? Of course they would.”
Approving work without jobs having been put out to bid hasn’t happened just once at Pinewood Lake Park.
On Oct. 12, 2015, an “Invoice on Furnishing, Decorating and repairs on Main House at Pine Wood Lake Park” from Liewendelyn Hart, project manager for Carolina Consultants Group LLC, appeared at the county for payment.
The invoice, a copy of which Quorum has obtained, sought $77,194 from the county for items bought to decorate every room of the three-bedroom, two-bath home located at the entrance to the Pinewood Lake Park grounds.
Though the items were listed individually, such as $5,580 for “Middle Room” that included “office suite, Rug, paintings, Plants (2), upgrade light fixtures,” but no receipts backed up the amounts. It also included an 11 percent ($7,233) “consultants fee.”
For at least one person in the procurement office, the invoice raised eyebrows.
“You cannot and do not submit invoices for work without receipts,” she said. “That’s just basic, because there’s no way to prove how much something cost.
“It’s especially for work no one approved through the regular bidding and procurement process.”
The bill was only paid, Quorum was told, when Jackson contacted the procurement office and demanded payment that day. Because the vendor was not in Richland County’s system, the employee said a new invoice was created using Chao and Associates at the direction of the county administrator’s office.
“(Jackson) wanted her paid that day, which is why they wrote it that way and got it paid. The only way they figured out to be paid that day is to give it to Chao.”
The invoice, a copy of which Quorum obtained, seeks payment for $77,194 for work under the heading of “Additional Service: Outside Consultant Service: Carolina Consulting (sic) Group.”
“That was a hand-written, specially cut check and Jimmy Chao came and picked it up himself,” the employee said. “There was no documentation behind it. That work was not solicited by the county at all.
“Because it was over $15,000, that was an illegal payment in and of itself, because nobody knew anything had been done until that invoice appeared on (County administrator) Tony (McDonald)’s desk and it was paid.
“Nothing about this was done right.”
‘IT’D BE FUNNY IF IT WEREN’T TRUE’
Hart’s name would soon emerge again.
With council exploring options to manage the park, including a brief flirtation with the Richland County Recreation Department, at Jackson’s urging council agreed to enter into a contract with a non-profit organization called the Pinewood Lake Foundation, established in April 2015 with its registered agent one Liewendelyn Hart.
“I was against the purchase (of the pond) in the first place, but after I lost my butt on the vote, I wanted us to do it responsibly,” Pearce said. “So part of the argument was, ‘Since we bought it, who is going to run it?’
“We couldn’t work it out with the rec people, so our negotiations morphed into the fact that some community volunteers were up there, and that morphed into the Foundation, though I don’t think council is real happy with the arrangement.”
Neither is staff.
When the Foundation submitted an unanticipated invoice to Richland County in February 2016 claiming $68,586 in flood damages, maintenance and community events, county chief financial officer Daniel Driggers balked.
In an internal email obtained by Quorum to key county personnel marked as “high” importance, Driggers said the invoice was irregular, did not follow county procurement guidelines and that paying it from hospitality tax funds earmarked for the park would not be appropriate.
In bulletized fashion, Driggers picked the invoice apart:
“* The document does not provide any dates for when the services or activities took place.
“* The document does not provide any receipts for the work performed or items purchased. How do you know that the amount is reasonable or right?”
“* The document does not provide the vendor information or invoicing for the services performed (weekly cleaning, etc.). How do you know who you are paying for the service?”
“* Food for events – there is no supporting documentation stating what were the events, who attended and what was the business purpose.
“* $26k for decoration/food/prizes for July 4th, Veteran’s Day, Halloween, Christmas and Community Bingo prizes. There are no supporting documentation to support the business reason for those purchases. Please explain how this is a valid business expense?”
Despite Driggers’ objections the invoice was paid, and two months later, in June, county council approved the Foundation be funded at $150,000 per year from hospitality tax funds for FY 2016-17 in addition to keeping whatever funds the park receives for event rental. For comparison, Richland County funds the Transitions Homeless Center at $100,000.
“You can’t name another county park with its own foundation, because there isn’t one,” the employee said. “Some parks around here need one, like Finlay Park, but somehow there’s one for Pinewood Lake Park? Do you think it deserves a foundation that gets $150,000 for a woman who has already billed the county $145,000 it didn’t have a contract for?
“It’d be funny if it weren’t true.”
For Pearce, the thought that council already has set aside another $6 million for Phase II of Pinewood Park – a figure that includes a proposed 750-seat amphitheater and a $2.3 million, 12,000-square foot community Building – makes him shudder, though not too much.
“I take comfort in the fact that as of right now council has frozen that $6 million,” said Pearce, who sits on the Pinewood Lake Ad Hoc Committee with Jackson and Bill Malinowski. “We approved it but council has balked on it. We won’t appropriate it.
“It’s a signature thing for (Jackson). I understand that, but there’s so many problems with the way some things have been done and the numbers are just all over the place for it.
“Mr. Jackson is going to say it’s a tourist destination. It’s a fine park, but it’s not a tourist destination. I mean, hey, I grew up there and learned to swim there and have great memories. But at the end of the day it’s a pond, you know what I mean?”