Seals Reverses Council, previous administrator’s decision not to pay invoice watchdog called ‘obvious rip-off scheme’
By RON AIKEN
All it took for Abraham Turner was time.
Nearly 10 months after former Richland County Administrator Tony McDonald refused to pay an unauthorized $26,000 invoice for dubious “flood relief” work that predominantly went for exorbitant salaries, new County Administrator Gerald Seals quietly approved the payment with no questions asked, no receipts provided for expenses claimed and no effort made on the County’s part to seek them.
Documents obtained by Quorum through a Freedom of Information Act request show a payment on Aug. 17, 2016, of $26,281 to AT Consulting for “the services provided starting 15 October to 21 October.”
The problem with the invoice, as numerous media reports at the time carefully documented (here and here), was that the work was done illegally because the job was never put out to bid as required by law, was never authorized by the only person who could have and no contract or purchase order ever was signed.
Turner, who briefly served as Gov. Nikki Haley’s head of the Department of Employment and Workforce Development before resigning amid controversy in early 2013, initially had sought a $1 million, no-bid contract from the county in a proposal pitched vigorously behind closed doors in executive session by former County Councilman Kelvin Washington at Council’s Oct. 20, 2015, meeting.
That amount included nearly $200,000 in salary for Turner himself and $928,000 to 17 other employees to “coordinate” and “distribute” donated flood relief items.
After hearing details of the unsolicited proposal in executive session, however — details that included, among other conditions, a request to use county vehicles and charge the county for gas — County Council chose not to hire AT Consulting.
That decision infuriated Washington, multiple sources present confirm, whose verbal tirade could be heard by staff waiting outside and who, when he returned to his seat, slammed down his papers on his desk.
Speaking to The State newspaper at the time, Councilman Seth Rose explained why Council refused the deal.
“I felt it was ill-conceived to award a contract for $1 million to an entity that has absolutely no financial accountability to the county,” Rose said. “They could take the money and do whatever they want with it. … I want to make sure that the taxpayer moneys go to the citizens that need it and not to someone’s wallet.”
Three days after being denied the contract, the county received an invoice from AT Consulting for $26,281 for work Turner claimed was performed in anticipation of winning the contract.
Ninety-percent of the funds sought, which included $7,140 for Turner, $4,200 for a deputy director, $4,320 for three “operations officers,” $2,000 for “Warehouse Staff” and $5,321 for 26 “Administrative Specialists,” went for salaries. An additional $3,300 was claimed for “travel, billeting and supplies.”
It is unclear what travel or hotels (billeting) were necessary, since Turner lives in Columbia and he was not displaced by the flood. Additionally, hotel rooms in the entire Midlands area were booked full that week with displaced citizens.
If any rooms were booked at all it is impossible to know now, because no receipts were ever provided by Turner and the single-page invoice — the only one he ever has provided — gives no breakdowns of individual names, hours worked, rooms booked, miles logged or supplies bought.
After receiving the invoice in October 2015, the County immediately denied payment.
Speaking to The Nerve in December 2015, McDonald went on record saying that payment of the unsolicited invoice specifically was denied “because there was no contract at the time between AT Consulting and the County, nor was one entered into following the invoice,” McDonald said. “No funds, therefore, have ever been paid to this firm by Richland County.”
In an emergency situation such as the flood event of 2015, the only individual allowed by County statute to authorize emergency work is the procurement director — at that time Cheryl Patrick — not the administrator, not the finance director, not county council.
Reached Monday evening, Patrick said she never authorized the work. Nor, she said, was she ever asked or told to do so by McDonald.
In fact, Patrick said, when the invoice came before her, McDonald, and former Assistant County Administrator Roxanne Ancheta, none of the three was aware of it beforehand or willing to pay it once received.
Said a source with knowledge of those conversations who asked not to be identified, any claims that McDonald knew about or approved Turner’s work are false.
“Turner had county computer equipment, telephones and folks from the Ombudsman’s office working down at the Lower Richland substation before Tony knew about it,” they said.
Patrick, who now works in procurement for the South Carolina Department of Transportation, agreed.
“There was nothing in writing anywhere,” Patrick said. “In procurement, there is no such thing as a verbal authorization without subsequent documentation.
“Otherwise anyone could come up and present an invoice and say, ‘Hey, a council member or staff member told me to do this work.’ In the entire flood recovery effort, the whole thing, there was not one verbal authorization done or needed. None. And somehow this was necessary? To pay for people to do a job lots of other groups were doing at the time for free?
“The idea that somehow this was authorized by anyone with authority to do so is wrong, especially because I was the only one who could have authorized it, and I didn’t.”
Speaking to The Nerve in October 2015, former Common Cause executive director John Crangle said Turner’s invoice gave the appearance of profiteering.
“This looks like one of the most obvious rip-off schemes I’ve seen,” Crangle said. “It’s obvious that FEMA and state government and private charities were already handling those activities, so it looked to be redundant and a raid on the treasury.
“Thank goodness it was seen for what it was, and media attention killed it.”
Only obviously, it didn’t.
After the initial rejection, on June 20, 2016, Turner’s lawyer Carl B. Grant sent a letter to Richland County Attorney Larry Smith again seeking payment of the invoice. The letter, obtained by Quorum, asks Smith for “(his) position on voluntarily paying this claim or whether litigation will be necessary.”
The argument for payment, Grant wrote, was that Turner had been directed to proceed by Washington, who promised council’s approval. Though Washington — who was removed from office by Gov. Nikki Haley for malfeasance in office following an indictment for failing to report $427,000 income and a felony DUI arrest — had no such authority, Grant argued that Turner believed Washington was speaking for County Council and “detrimentally relied upon Washington’s directives and assurances that AT Consulting would be paid.”
Internal emails obtained by Quorum show that by Aug. 1, the County officially had reversed course on the issue and now was willing to pay the invoice without question.
Writing to former Finance Director Daniel Driggers at 1:18 p.m. on Aug. 1, former Assistant County Administrator Warren Harley asked if he could “have a check cut today for AT Consulting in the amount of $26,281.25 for the attached invoice?”
Two hours later, at 3:45 p.m. Driggers responded.
“No, I can’t cut a check today,” Driggers wrote. “The information is a little confusing, so there are some questions that need to get documented so I can pay.”
Driggers asked for a document from Administration explaining the circumstance, the timeline and whether the invoice is a contract for professional services or payroll. At 5:29, Harley wrote back and included attachments of the attorney’s letter from June, the original invoice from 2015 and his own “Analysis and Path Forward.”
“It is important to point out that although there was no formal agreement between Richland County and AT Consulting, the former Richland County Administrator (McDonald) authorized General Turner to operate the Lower Richland Operations Center (LROC) and the Shop Rd. warehouse,” Harley wrote. “This deviation from Richland County’s normal process created a defacto (sic) agreement.”
“After discussion with the Interim Administrator (Seals), we have concluded that it is in the best interest of all parties to resolve the issue as soon as possible.”
In a letter from Grant to Harley on Aug. 10 that included Turner’s W9 and Grant’s tax ID number for payment processing, Grant includes an odd warning.
“You are politely reminded to have no further communication with our client in any capacity,” Grant wrote. “Thank you for your cooperation in these matters.”
Check No. 87850 was issued to “Abraham J Turner c/o Carl B. Grant” on Aug. 17.
When reached Sunday for comment, Rose declined.
Neither spokesperson Beverly Harris nor Seals responded to requests for comment. Harley resigned from the County in October 2016, taking a $55,000 settlement with a covenant not to sue the County, while Driggers resigned unexpectedly last month.
Efforts to reach McDonald were unsuccessful.
Reached Monday, Crangle, who now works as government relations director for the South Carolina Progressive Network, said he was troubled, but not surprised, that the payment eventually was made.
“It’s sad that this is just the way things are done in Richland County,” Crangle said. “Local governments are cesspools of corruption, and Richland County is worse than others in that it has more money than most counties in the state.”
While it was precisely unwelcome press attention that scuttled Turner and Washington’s proposal in 2015 after it was made public, no press releases documented the decision nine months later, no paperwork appeared in public agendas and no record of the decision or supporting documents exists online except a single line on page nine of the 36-page August 2016 Accounts Payable Check Register, which is where Quorum discovered it.
In hindsight, Crangle said, the outcome was almost predictable.
“I suppose they figured that the heat was off, the media was done with it and they could sneak it through,” Crangle said. “Which is exactly what they did.”
Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @QuorumColumbia and like Quorum on Facebook.
[Extra: READ all the correspondence obtained by Quorum here: FOIA Response Turner Documentation.]