Jackson secured $1.2 million in grants and property to two women over past four years
By RON AIKEN
Barely a year after Richland County Councilman Norman Jackson recruited a single mother working as a certified nurse’s assistant and cleaning houses on the side to make ends meet to form an LLC together, Liewendelyn Hart’s Carolina Consultants Group was awarded two high-profile county engineering contracts worth a total of $175,000, documents obtained by Quorum under the Freedom of Information Act show.
With no professional certifications, no engineering degree, no business address, no website nor a single job of any kind ever performed by her company, Hart was picked by both Jackson and councilwoman Julie-Ann Dixon personally to perform critical feasibility and market-analysis studies for tourism-related projects in their districts with projected budgets totaling $14 million.
Before Jackson ever pressured county staff to approve $77,000 in illlegal reimbursements for no-bid, non-solicited work in 2015 by Carolina Consultants Group, before he secured $150,000 in hospitality-tax money for Hart’s Pinewood Lake Park Foundation in June and before he added $80,000 more to it through a one-time personal allocation, Jackson already had a history of sending hundreds of thousands of dollars of work Hart’s way that she was in no way qualified to do and for which, a former boyfriend alleges, Hart paid her “business partner” (as she is alleged to have called Jackson) cash payments in the thousands.
By the end of FY 2016-17, Hart’s two LLCs, of which she is the only employee, will have collected $514,000 of taxpayer dollars. Coupled with Jackson’s securing $765,000 in grants and land to Patricia Ford’s SCALE, Inc., since 2014 Jackson will have steered $1.3 million in property and cash to two women whose livelihood is provided by Jackson and the county, one of whom (Ford) has falsified multiple addresses with the IRS and S.C. Secretary of State and another (Hart) who has received multiple no-bid contracts over a period of years for work she was not qualified (or in some cases authorized) to perform.
‘A UNIQUE DEAL’
On June 26, 2013, Richland County Council unanimously voted to reappropriate $44 million intended for the Northeast Sports Complex to six projects intended to drive tourism to unincorporated areas of the county. Set aside to make those projects possible were “dollars necessary to conduct or complete the feasibility and market analysis studies,” the motion read.
Of those varying amounts, Dixon’s District 9 had a feasibility budget of $100,000 of which she spent $97,181 with Carolina Consultants Group, while Jackson had slightly less, just $80,000, $77,727 of which he spent with Hart’s LLC. By December of 2013, Hart, subcontracting through Chao and Associates according to multiple sources, had collected $174,909 producing feasibility studies that included expenses for everything from engineering surveys to architectural blueprints to mapping to soil analysis.
How and why those contracts, both of which exceeded the minimum amount required by law to be bid out ($15,000), is due to former procurement director Rodolfo Callwood personally allowing council members to pick and choose their firms indiscriminately.
And not only were council members allowed to hand-pick their vendors (for which all that’s required to be one is submit forms to the county), they also got final approval on the invoice itself, the amounts and the final report. Both reports Carolina Consultants produced — one for a proposed splash pad and water park on Garners Ferry Rd and another for an amphitheater on Kelly Mill Road — recommended doing the projects, though both projects were later voted down by a majority of council.
“It was kind of a unique deal on those reports,” said a council member who asked to remain anonymous. “The idea we had to look into projects that could benefit the communities was a good one, but it looks like what happened was some members directed the money to people who would give them the answers they wanted.
“It’s also clear that staff should have vetted the companies being used and normal procurement procedures should have been followed.”
Why they weren’t, said an employee familiar with those contracts who asked not to be identified, is simple.
“Staff is terrified of Jackson,” they said. “He intimidates people to get what he wants.
“In the case of the feasibility contracts, Rodolfo gave Jackson total control over them.”
On the invoices themselves, which Quorum obtained copies of through the Freedom of Information Act, no specific activities are itemized for costs, only listed (“Architectural consult, Engineering consult, survey consult, topo, contour,” etc.) with a total dollar amount at the bottom.
When staff got the unusually succinct invoices from Hart and asked questions, hand-written notes from then assistant county administrator Roxanne Anchetta wrote “Per Rodolfo, the council member has approved this invoice, as well as the final report.”
“(Rodolfo) let Jackson do whatever,” another county government source said. “He let it happen.
“Legitimate firms invoice with detailed line items. Not (Hart). She never does, and no one raises an eyebrow because of Jackson.
“It’s funny how so many on staff have so much disdain for Jackson but won’t stand up to him, and he keeps getting away with things like this year after year. There’s no way (Hart) gets that work in a normal process, the way it should be done, because she didn’t have the experience to do the work.”
Beyond the contracts for which work ultimately was performed (though its conclusions roundly rejected), Hart also has not had need of council-wide approval for much of the hospitality-tax funding she has received as the CEO of the Pinewood Lake Park Foundation, a 501(c)(3) that, like Carolina Consultants, lists Hart as its registered agent with an address of 144 Trillium Rd on the S.C. Secretary of State’s website.
Of the $245,500 in h-tax money the Pinewood Lake Park Foundation will have received by June 30, 2017, $95,500 came from direct allocations over the past two years by Jackson himself thanks to a move in 2015 by council to allow members to allocate certain percentages of total hospitality-tax awards individually, without scrutiny or the chance to question them.
The idea made sense; rather than the usual process of baiting-and-switching upon third reading that had become a troubling pattern — as in, at third reading a councilman or woman makes motion after motion to move $10,000 from a significantly funded charity over here to a small one over there, etc., etc., etc. The process, repeated by different council members at third reading, became tedious and troublesome.
Instead, council decided that an amount to be determined by either leftover dollars from funding cutbacks or some other reason (in 2016-17, the absence of a District 10 councilman thanks to Kelvin Washington having been removed from office by Gov. Nikki Haley following his indictment on tax evasion charges) would be distributed equally to council members and they would have total discretion as to who received the money and how much.
For FY 2015-16, that amount was $45,454. Jackson allocated all of it to the two sole-owner 501(c)(3)s who depend on him: Hart’s Pinewood Lake Park Foundation ($15,454) and SCALE, Inc. ($15,000 to run Carolina Sun Splash and $15,000 for the Horrell Hill parade).
For FY 2016-17, with $164,395 to distribute, most council members spread the wealth around to many charities — Bill Malinowski, Damon Jeter and Seth Rose all gave to 14 different groups, Jim Manning to 15 and Joyce Dickerson to 27 — Jackson gave to three, the fewest number of any council member.
As one of just two council members to spend the entire amount to the penny (along with Julie-Ann Dixon), Jackson poured the majority of his allotment into Ford’s SCALE ($70,000) and Hart’s Pinewood Lake Park Foundation ($80,000, which added to council’s already approved $150,000 took Hart to $230,000 for FY 2016-17).
For the councilman who did not wish to be identified, while acknowledging the idea was sound to allow council members to select worthy charities without taking away from secured amounts for larger, traditionally funded ones, they admitted it’s not difficult to see how serious ethical problems could arise.
“You’re holding a lot of power in your hands when you’re giving money out personally and they either get something or don’t at your discretion, not council’s,” they said. “There’s a lot of gray area in there that makes me uncomfortable.”
How far into the future Jackson can continue to fund Ford and Hart’s activities is unclear. County Council recently removed Pinewood Lake Park Foundation’s control of the park beginning July 1 of 2017 and is turning over management of it to the Richland County Conservation Commission. As for SCALE, an investigation into its activities was opened on Tuesday, the day after Quorum’s initial story ran, and is expected to encompass all aspects of its spending.
Neither Jackson nor Hart responded to requests for comment for this story.
Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @QuorumColumbia and like Quorum on Facebook.