Promotions firm charged extravagant amounts for flyers, consulting, fees
By RON AIKEN
Two businesses that formed within a month-and-a-half 0f each other last year received more than 70 percent of the $192,500 in hospitality-tax money Richland County has paid the Pinewood Lake Park Foundation since July 2016, $37,000 of which was in direct violation of the management contract between the County and the foundation, a review of financial records obtained by Quorum through a Freedom of Information Act request reveals.
The payments — $104,117 to Perfect Choice Promotions and $36,870 to Dynamic Landscape LLC for a total of $140,897 — invite scrutiny both for the large amounts, the nature of the work, the lack of documentation provided for claimed expenses and the very businesses themselves, neither of which has a website, online presence of any kind (Facebook page, etc.) or office. Both appear to do work only for the Pinewood Lake Park Foundation.
The concerns don’t stop there.
Dynamic Landscape LLC was created on April 29, 2016 by Regina Porterfield and lists a false address, 101 Niblick Court in West Columbia, on its South Carolina Secretary of State business filing. No such address exists.
Perfect Choice Promotions owner Tamika Myers, a former Richland County Recreation Department Employee who multiple recreation sources confirm was fired for writing a contract she wasn’t authorized to and using her own name to let a customer use her employee discount. Her business was formed on June 20, 2016, just 11 days before she submitted her first invoice for $4,200 worth of work.
Among the other issues found were:
- all payments to Dynamic Landscape were unauthorized uses of hospitality-tax money and violated the property management agreement signed by the County and Liewendelyn Hart, CEO of the Pinewood Lake Park Foundation;
- Hart wrote two checks to herself from the Foundation account totaling $6,700, one of which ($2,500) was designated in the “for” section of the check as being for “Halloween mis(cellaneous)/Food/Stuff” and the other ($4,200) designated as “salary” for staff working the park’s “Wet n Wild” event held at the Richland County Recreation Commission’s Garner’s Ferry Adult Activity Center. A sign-in sheet for that event that has a handwritten note at the top saying “all staff paid in cash” and lists 18 names but includes no hours worked or any amounts paid;
- a requirement of the property management agreement is that in addition to the regular financial reports required to comply with County hospitality-tax guidelines, Pinewood Lake Park also is supposed to provide a record of its profits — throughout the year the park rents out its picnic shelter to groups, charges visitors admission for a range of events and held its own formal fundraiser. No such report has been provided to the County.
Most troubling of all, however, is that of the $141,000 paid to the two businesses by from July 1 – Dec. 26, 2016, Quorum’s review found no receipts whatsoever to support any of the expenses claimed — the same problem that contributed to the Pinewood Lake Park Foundation and its CEO Liewendelyn Hart (along with County Councilman Norman Jackson and now-indicted SCALE, Inc. CEO Patricia Ford) coming under criminal investigation by the South Carolina Attorney General and the FBI.
The Pinewood Lake Park Foundation has operated the park since signing a property management agreement as an independent contractor with the County on June 15, 2016. Due to County Council’s concerns about the management of the park last year, on Oct. 18, 2016, County Council voted to turn control of the park completely over to the Richland County Conservation Commission, which will assume management of the park on July 1.
Despite that fact, at Council’s May 25 budget work session Jackson still attempted to secure $150,000 in hospitality-tax funding for the foundation, refused to concede it no longer had a role at the park and threatened a “race war” if it did not receive funding in this budget cycle. Council meets tonight (Thursday) to give the 2017-18 budget final third-reading approval.
Some of those concerns Council voiced had to do with at-times contentious conversations between County staff and Hart, particularly over her use of hospitality-tax money to pay for things such as food, Christmas gifts ($5,280) and non-authorized maintenance subcontracting and her accounting for hospitality-tax expenses for events held in 2015. In a June 17, 2016 letter — just two days after Hart’s foundation signed the contract to manage the park — Richland County Grants Manager Natasha Dozier summed up the County’s biggest issue with Hart’s FY 2015-16 Mid-Year Report.
“As part of their Mid-Year report (see attached report), it is required that entities provide copies of valid invoices and proof of payment (e.g., copy of canceled check, bank statement, credit card receipt) for each item that was paid for using County funds.
“Pinewood Foundation’s report did not provide any invoices and/or proof of payment.”
For that and other reasons Pinewood Lake Park Foundation was placed in a state of non-compliance with County hospitality-tax guidelines, which would have prevented it from receiving any of the $230,000 it was awarded later that month ($150,000 from County Council, another $80,000 by
direct allocation of Jackson). According to a copy of an internal hospitality-tax audit obtained by Quorum, Hart’s foundation was removed from the list due to “discussions with Council member Jackson.”
The same inadequate accounting issues — and problems with County staff — surround both Perfect Choice Promotions and Dynamic Landscape LLC.
While the paperwork Hart submitted on behalf of Dynamic Landscape was incomplete at best — no invoices were provided at all for $21,830 paid to Dynamic Landscape, just cleared checks with vague descriptions written on the checks’ “for” line — the biggest problem was that most of Dynamic Landscape’s expenses were explicitly prohibited by the contract’s language. That agreement stipulated that only the County, not the Foundation, was authorized to do grounds-related maintenance and repair of County property.
A source familiar with discussions between Hart and Dozier on the issue said the County repeatedly told Hart she could not hire subcontractors to perform work on County-owned land.
“If she was told once she was told a thousand times not to do that,” the source said. “It seems simple to understand, but Hart kept doing it.”
In a letter to Dozier that accompanied her Mid-Year report to support $112,500 in operations expenses, Hart claimed she was forced to hire Dynamic Landscape.
“Dynamic Landscape was contracted as a secondary maintenance contractor doing the work the county could not,” Hart wrote. “If the (County’s) Support Services did their part and Special Services did their part there would be a lot more savings but they could not do it all.”
For Perfect Choice Promotions, providing savings to the County proved equally difficult.
A major component of Perfect Choice’s claimed spending is on flyers — $22,103 for 24,500 total flyers printed for 15 separate events for an average of 90 cents per copy. To determine whether 90 cents for a color, two-sided, 8.5 x 11 inch UV coating copy (the most expensive one detailed by Perfect Choice, though not always specified) is reasonable, Quorum contacted a local printing shop, ApexGraphix, that has been in business for more than 25 years.
The majority (nine) of the amount of flyers ordered by Perfect Choice Promotions per event were 1,400 at a cost of $1,195 per order. Speaking to owner John Runy on Wednesday and using Perfect Choice Promotion’s guidelines, Runy said he would do the same job for $300 — nearly four times cheaper than Perfect Choice Promotions and a savings of $895 per 1,400-count order.
“Seems high to me,” Runy said of Perfect Choice Promotions’ charges.
A quote online from popular printing company vistaprint.com revealed even more savings. While ApexGraphix averaged 20 cents a copy, vistaprint’s price for 1,500 flyers with the same specifications was $250 (17 cents a copy). Had the same rates been applied evenly, the work Perfect Choice Promotions charged $22,103 for could have been done for as little as $4,900 with ApexGraphix or $4,165 with vistaprint.
In addition to those costs, on four of the invoices Perfect Choice claimed a separate flyer design and social media promotion fee totaling an additional $6,067. No receipts for any of the flyer purchases was included in Pinewood Lake Park Foundation’s paperwork.
TAXES, FEES AND CONSULTATIONS
The State of South Carolina’s Department of Revenue defines “sales tax” as one “imposed on the sales at retail of tangible personal property and certain services” per Sect. 12-36-910 of the South Carolina Code of Laws. The only services subject to sales and use taxes are the furnishing of accommodations, dry cleaning, electricity and communication services such as telephone, internet, cable and satellite services.
While sales taxes are not assessed on professional services such as bills from public relations or marketing firms, Quorum’s review of Perfect Choice Promotions’ invoices found 12 charging an additional 8 percent sales tax on the amount of the invoice and another eight using the word “fee” in the same column and also showing an additional 8 percent charge.
Coupled with routine “set up/clean up” fees standard on nearly every invoice ($4,342 total) and $20,145 worth of “marketing/consultations” fees that appear on 13 of the 20 invoices submitted, in total Perfect Choice Promotions collected $33,4432 in fees alone from July to December 2016.
For a former Richland County employee who dealt with invoices on a daily basis and spoke only on condition of anonymity, a fee on top of an invoice for work immediately draws suspicion.
“I recently had a fence put up, and the guy gave me a quote, broke it into amounts for materials and labor, and that was it,” they said. “There was no extra fee.
“The work was the fee. His bill was the fee. You don’t add a fee on top of a bill. What would that even be for? It’s like asking for free extra money for doing nothing.”
The practice of adding a fee to a bill at Pinewood Lake Park — and having it paid in full by the County — is not new. Without the work being put out to bid and with no approval from then-Richland County Administrator Tony McDonald, on Oct. 12, 2015 Hart submitted a $77,194 invoice to the County using her Carolina Consultants Group LLC for “Furnishing; Decorating and repairs on main house at Pine Wood (sic) Lake Park.”
Listed on the invoice underneath the total for all work performed (including labor), an additional 11 percent “consultants fee” ($7,233) was added, as was a “tax” of $4,208.
Despite repeated requests, neither Porterfield or Myers responded to messages and texts left seeking comment.
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.
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