Ahead of important court date, County had to show it had found a director
By RON AIKEN
Hoping to convince a judge it was taking allegations of unethical practices and failures to provide aggrieved parties legal remedy in the Shop Road procurement process seriously, Richland County took drastic action to create the appearance of responsibility where none existed.
Needing to put somebody, anybody, in the position of procurement director that had been vacant since May 2016 before a hearing in front of former S.C. Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal opened on April 4, the County called in an applicant for a lower-level position in another department, Chris Younts, and offered him the job of director of procurement: a job with higher pay, prestige and responsibility than the position he was seeking and despite Younts having no experience in the procurement arena and having never applied for the job.
“I had come in to interview for the budget analyst position, and when they called me back for a second interview I thought we were going to talk more about the budget position,” said Younts, who had worked for the 81st Regional Support Command at Fort Jackson as a budget analyst since 2014 before applying with the County.
“So I came in and I was told by (former finance department director) Daniel Driggers that I was overqualified for the analyst position but that he may have something else for me,” Younts said. “He said he needed someone with my management background to take over the procurement department and that I didn’t have to worry about not having the procurement credentials because other people over there were handling the day-to-day stuff.
“He said it’d be a good way to get my foot in the door at the County and learn how things worked, then later I could move into a senior budget role in Finance when it came open. It sounded great. I was very excited.”
Younts’ enthusiasm didn’t last long; in fact, it didn’t make it past lunchtime of his first day on the job.
WORST. FIRST DAY. EVER.
Younts’ first day started off like that of any other new employee.
“Mr Driggers showed me around and started introducing me to a few people,” Younts said. “That was going great, I’m enjoying myself, then just before lunch I get an email saying to meet (Driggers) up at the (County) Administrator’s office to meet some other directors, sort of a regular weekly meeting type of thing. I said ‘Sure.'”
That’s when his day — and his life –changed drastically, almost indescribably so, he says, and for the worse.
“I go into (Administrator Gerald) Seals’ office and there’s people all over sitting in chairs,” said Yount, who said the attendees at the meeting were County Attorney Larry Smith, Human Resource Director Dwight Hanna, Brenda Parnell and Assistant County Administrator Sandra Yudice.
“There was one chair up in front and (Seals) motioned me to come up and sit down with everyone else behind me,” Younts said. “He says, “Mr. Younts, I’m going to be real honest with you. I don’t see you being here for very long.
“I said, “Really? Why is that?” He said, “Well, first of all you just don’t look like you’ve got the credentials to be here, and I don’t see you being here for very long. However, I’m going to give you a chance. I’m going to give you 30 days to prove me wrong.”
When he asked what he needed to do to prove Seals wrong, Seals shocked Younts yet again.
“He said, ‘I need you to change the entire image of the procurement office from being an impediment to purchasing for the front line offices of the County to being a partnership department to the front-line offices of the county so that they can more easily purchase the goods and services they need to deliver to the citizens of Richland County,'” Younts said.
“After a very pregnant pause, I said, ‘And you want me to do all that in 30 days?’
“He said, ‘Yeah.’ I remember thinking, ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?”
Younts left the meeting shell-shocked. He searched for Driggers, who Younts believes also did not know of Seals’ intentions to fire Younts after 30 days. Younts speculated that Driggers’ likely anger over Seals actions and embarrassment for what he’d told Younts he could do for him were big factors in Driggers’ sudden, unexpected resignation the following Tuesday.
Over the next few days, Younts said he formulated a plan to try and meet Seals’ challenge.
“In my management mind, I’m thinking the first thing you have to do is assess the situation,” Younts said. “How deep is it? How pervasive it is? How long has it been going on? Those sorts of things. You have to determine that before you can figure out how to untangle the various problems that you see.
“So I start coming up with a survey to send out. My plan was to send it out to all directors and distribute it to all those below them who have dealings with procurement. Then, they’d send the survey back to me and I’d go through the information, run the statistics and come up with a plan.”
After a couple failed attempts to propose his plan, Younts has the opportunity to pitch it to Assistant County Administrator Kevin Brunson.
“I start talking about it and he stops me and said ‘What are you doing?’,” Younts said. “I said, ‘Here’s what I was told to do by Mr. Seals. So here’s my plan and the survey. He stops me and says, ‘Tear it up. We don’t do surveys around here.”
“I said, ‘How am I supposed to know what the problems are and by that, start fixing things?’ He said, ‘Well, about that, we’ll talk about that at a later date.’ Of course there was no later date, and pretty much at that point there was no chance at all to earn the job. I was screwed.”
After getting some advice from a person he didn’t know in the hallway but who told him always to keep a resignation letter in his pocket, Younts was ready when the call came to go to Assistant County Administrator Kevin Bronson’s office on Friday of the fourth week.
“So I go up with my letter in my pocket,” Younts said. “He says, look, there’s no easy way to do it, we have to let you go. It’s not a good fit.”
“I said, ‘No you don’t.’ I pulled out the letter, slapped it on the table and said, ‘I don’t need this.’
“He said, ‘You’re resigning?’
“I said, ‘Yes I am. Under duress, but I’m resigning.’ I came back down, packed up my things and left.”
While the hire was a waste of public dollars, employee time and unnecessarily increased taxpayer’s liability exposure, it was a success in the one — and likely only — aim behind the hire in the first place: Toal was fooled.
At the April 4 hearing, a transcript of which Quorum has obtained, Toal argues strongly that Richardson Construction (the firm protesting the award) does not have a valid legal remedy because by ordinance, a procurement director is the first platform of appeal. The procurement director and only the procurement director may make that assessment. Without one, there’s no way to start the appeal process.
At this point attorney for the County Ned Nicholson is able to play his hand, to the surprise of the entire Richardson team.
“Your Honor, I can tell the Court on behalf of the County there is a procurement director for the County named Curt — Chris Younts, Y-O-U-N-T-S. Director of Procurement.”
“All right,” Toal responds. “And what about the procurement review panel?”
The issue of a missing director does not come up again.
The extremely unusual, unorthodox and ultimately suspicious nature of the hire raises far more questions than it answers, questions such as basic as why Seals would approve Younts’ hiring then immediately say he wasn’t qualified to keep his job beyond 30 days? Why go through the trouble at all?
Younts said by the end of his month, he’d wondered the same thing.
“When Daniel talked to me and we discussed the position, I believed I would be reporting directly to him,” Younts said. “But that’s not the way it was at all. We had nothing to do with each other. It was only Seals.
“I think If I had been given an interview with Seals rather than Daniel, I’d have seen through him. I couldn’t see through Daniel, because I think Daniel was probably being manipulated by Seals without being aware of it. That’s the only reason I can come up with for why he was upset enough to leave after being there so long.”
The last, and most important, question is the same as the first: Why did Seals approve the hiring of a person without the proper qualifications that he immediately humiliated in front of his peers without warning or the courtesy of privacy?
Perhaps at least a partial answer lies not in what happened but in what didn’t.
No press release was crafted nor was any statement issued by the Richland County Public Information Office announcing Younts’ hiring, which is unusual for news as positive as a new hire at a top position, especially one that’s currently at the center of, in Toal’s words, “one of the most serious bid controversies that the County has been involved in in a long time.”
Similarly, nothing released or issued regarding Younts’ resignation, something that also happens (as in Drigger’s case) with director-level positions. The lack of any information about Younts’ hire or departure constitutes a highly unusual silence for such an important position, a silence that’s possible to read as a deliberate attempt to keep the circumstances of Younts’ bizarre, boundary-blurring ordeal out of the media.
Except for Quorum, that effort has been successful.
“I never thought about that until now, that nothing was ever said about my coming or going,” Younts said. “It’s like they didn’t want anyone in the media or public to know.
“I still have questions, the same ones you do. I left a good job I was happy at, and now I can see this was a deception all the way around.
“How can they hire someone who didn’t apply for the job? I never even saw a job description. As a professional, I’m upset because it’s messed up my career a little bit, but as a citizen, I’m appalled. If that’s how they do business on a regular basis, it’s terrible. It’s just a terrible way to treat other human beings. I hope (Seals) gets what’s coming. I’d pay to be there to see it.”
Seals did not respond to questions for this story.