Multiple Council members admit they don’t scrutinize each other’s allocations worth $1.8 million
By RON AIKEN
It wasn’t the blink of an eye, but it might as well have been.
In the span of 30 seconds last Thursday, Richland County Council took up, seconded, and approved a motion to award $402,000 worth of three individual members’ hospitality-tax allotments — including an allocation of $155,000 from a Council member under criminal FBI investigation to a charity under the same criminal investigation — without a single question asked or concern raised and by an overwhelming margin of 10 votes to one.
Despite County Council being aware of the open FBI and South Carolina Attorney General investigations into Councilman Norman Jackson and the Pinewood Lake Park Foundation’s CEO Liewendelyn Hart, the speed of the vote and breadth of the accord over Jackson’s controversial allotment betrayed an ugly truth behind a facade of legality.
The policy to allow each member to individually allocate his/her share of the hospitality-tax revenue left over after the institutions the County is mandated to fund by law receive their money ($164,000 per member the past two years) is only legal because the full council has to formally approve each individual’s choices with an up-or-down vote.
In theory, that measure should deter any individual Council member from making excessive, questionable or unethical allotments with his/her share of the pot.
In practice, not a single member’s allocations have been challenged since it was enacted thanks to an unwritten understanding between members not to interfere in each other’s allotments, multiple sources on Council tell Quorum.
“We had a non-binding agreement to let each person budget as they saw fit if the allocations were going to organizations meeting H-tax requirements,” said longtime Councilman Greg Pearce about the protocol and why he didn’t object to Jackson’s controversial allotment. “It was a gentleman’s agreement, and you go along because if you don’t, there will be retribution and decent, honorable people you want to help bring tourism will be hurt.”
Vice chair Bill Malinowski concurred.
“As long as (a charity is) eligible (to receive hospitality-tax money), it’s kind of a done deal,” Malinowski said. “You can vote ‘no,’ but you’re going to have to get five other ‘no’ votes, and you’re cutting your own throat if you do that.
“Unless there’s something big wrong with something, nobody’s going to object.”
And even when there is something “big wrong,” such as Jackson’s taking money meant to be spread around District 11 and giving it to just a single entity under the same criminal investigation as himself, motivated Council members have means of circumventing dissension.
When Jackson’s motion came before Council to be reviewed by itself Thursday night, Council member Paul Livingston took initiative. With three different Council members on the agenda to present their allotments (Jackson’s was first), video from the meeting (an excerpt of which is linked below) shows Livingston leaping in with a new motion before Chairwoman Joyce Dickerson could finish her sentence introducing the motion.
Dickerson: “Next we have, um…um…next one we got is…”
Vice Chair Bill Malinowski, reminding her: “H-tax Jackson…”
Dickerson: “Mr. Jackson…”
Livingston: “I move we approve both of ’em, H-tax Jackson and H-tax Dickerson.”
Dickerson: “Dickerson, OK.”
Livingston: “Any others?”
Livingston: “And Manning.”
Dickerson: “OK, do I have a second?”
Dickerson: “Moved and seconded. Any discussion, hearing none all in favor raise your hand.”
By tactfully combining Jackson’s motion with that of the two other Council members presenting allotments — including the Chairwoman’s — Livingston threw a curveball to any opponents of Jackson’s motion singularly, and in the confusion of the following seconds the vote was taken and the motion passed with every hand in the air except Rose’s.
Asked why he was the only “no” vote, Rose said he couldn’t ignore the problems that put the Pinewood Lake Park Foundation in the crosshairs of the FBI to begin with.
“I couldn’t support the allocation of tax dollars to an entity that has a history of accountability issues with prior allocations,” Rose told Quorum. “Even though this was one particular council member’s personal allotment, the full council must approve the allocation by a roll-call vote.
‘Voting ‘no’ was the only vote to cast on this issue in my opinion.”
For critics of the County’s hospitality-tax program, just as alarming as the lack of concern expressed about Jackson’s allocation and the ethical questions raised by gentlemen’s agreements not to question each other is a process itself that prevents any of the $1.8 million Council members allocate individually from being made public before, during or after they are voted on.
At Thursday’s meeting, no mention was made publicly regarding the amount of money Jackson (or Dickerson or Manning) had allocated nor to whom it was intended. Quorum obtained a copy of the document exclusively through a confidential source, which is why it is the only outlet thus far that has reported its contents.
Such secrecy with these documents has been the County’s standard practice. Since 2015, when the policy allowing individual allotments was adopted, neither in the agendas published online before meetings nor in the minutes published after them do the amounts and destinations of Councilmembers’ hospitality-tax allocations appear. The County has not provided an answer as to why, and Quorum has obtained them only through multiple Freedom of Information Act requests.
The lack of public scrutiny has benefited Council.
Without the ability to see how members distributed their discretionary allotments, organizations who may have felt they did not receive enough (or any) hospitality tax money from their representative could not complain or raise difficult questions.
In Jackson’s case, his constituents in District 11 have had no way of knowing (unless they read this website) that last year, instead of giving his $164,000 to any number of organizations with the goal of increasing tourism in the Lower Richland area, he gave it almost exclusively to just two — one of which, SCALE, Inc., has since had its director indicted for misuse of those same hospitality-tax funds and the other, the Pinewood Lake Park Foundation, now a prime focus of that same ongoing investigation.
Likewise, had not Quorum obtained a copy of Jackson’s allotment this year, no one outside of Council would know that not only did he duplicate his allotment of $80,000 to the Pinewood Lake Park Foundation for FY2017-18, he also took the events that SCALE formerly had managed — the Carolina Sunsplash Festival ($55,000) and the S.C. Gospel Fest ($20,000) — and gave their funding and control to Pinewood Lake Park.
As Quorum reported exclusively last week, of $192,500 Pinewood Lake Park reported spending from July-December of 2016, more than 70 percent of it went to two entities that had been in existence for less than three months, one of which was unauthorized by the County to perform any work whatsoever at the park and the other responsible for submitting invoices listing prices up to five times market value, assessing sales taxes on transactions not authorized by law and charging large amounts on every invoice for marketing and consulting fees.
Both SCALE and the Pinewood Lake Park Foundation were required to submit their final reports for FY 2016-17 hospitality-tax spending on May 31.
According to an emailed response last week to a Freedom of Information Act request from Quorum seeking that information, neither organization has yet produced those documents.
Though the individual allotment forms from all Council members technically were due last Thursday ahead of the called meeting to give third-reading approval to the FY2017-18 budget, only three members turned them in, meaning eight more — combining to total $1.8 million — will trickle in gradually over the coming weeks as individual members decide, in private, which organizations will receive their patronage and which organizations will not.
While picking who will benefit is guesswork, picking who suffers is not.
“Spending public dollars should take place in public view,” Rose said. “No one should have anything to hide.”
Government watchdog John Crangle of the S.C. Progressive Network took Rose’s position a step further.
“This episode raises serious questions about the process Richland County is using here,” Crangle said. “Not only do you have the disturbing substance of this one transaction, but this process appears to be fundamentally defective in several ways.
“There are major problems here with the lack of transparency. Beyond that there does not seem to be any discipline exercised by council on the part of individual members. Each one seems to feel that as long as they can spend their money they want to, they’re going to let others do whatever they want with theirs. While that may be individually beneficial, collectively it’s disastrous.
“Politicians are too eager to look the other way, even when things are unethical or illegal. They don’t want to make anyone mad. I think there are serious questions to ask about giving council members a slush fund left to their complete discretion that their colleagues rubber-stamp. And then you also keep the public out of it? There’s a moral blindness here that sets in like a disease, and it rots everything from the inside out.”
Third reading of the budget passed 9-2, with Council members Jim Manning and vice chairman Bill Malinowski the only ‘No’ votes.
Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @QuorumColumbia and like Quorum on Facebook.
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