Attorney General Investigation into Hospitality Tax Recipients, Councilman Norman Jackson Continue
By RON AIKEN
Two women, one currently indicted and the other under Attorney General and FBI investigation, together have received $1.2 million in public funds since 2010 from Richland County Councilman Norman Jackson either directly or through his advocacy, including 98 percent of the $350,000 in hospitality-tax money Jackson personally has allocated since 2015, financial records obtained by Quorum show.
Through her two separate two LLCs — Carolina Consultants Group and the Pinewood Lake Park Foundation — Liewendelyn Hart has received $730,000 from Richland County from 2013 through this fiscal year, $255,000 of which has come from Jackson’s direct allotment. Since 2010, SCALE, Inc.’s Patricia “Pat” Ford has received $420,000, $195,000 of which went to MoBay Restaurant to organize and run the Carolina Sunsplash Festival from 2014-2017 with SCALE acting as a fiscal pass-through agent since hospitality-tax money cannot go to private businesses.
The concentration of such large sums to just two individuals over the past three years especially was a “big red flag” to investigators who spoke to Quorum on condition of anonymity.
With more than 70 groups across Richland County receiving hospitality tax awards last year and Richland County Council members exercising direct personal control over approximately $373,000 apiece since 2015, Council members spread that wealth to an average of 13 different groups last year with a high of 27 (Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson), records show.
The FBI and Attorney General investigation into Jackson, Ford and Hart was launched after Quorum first exposed fraud in the hospitality-tax program late last year. The first round of indictments against Ford came in March and was followed by five more in June.
Hart has repeatedly run afoul of County financial reporting requirements dating back to a $77,000 invoice she submitted in October 2015 without any receipts for work she claimed to have performed at Pinewood Lake Park under another nonprofit in her name, Carolina Consultants Group. Back in 2013, when each Council member had a budget to perform a feasibility study on potential tourist draws for their district, Jackson chose Carolina Consultants Group to do that work (which Chao & Associates primarily performed) for $77,727 and persuaded then-Councilwoman Julie-Ann Dixon to do the same for $97,000.
When presented with the unauthorized, unsolicited invoice for $77,000 in 2015, then-County procurement director Cheryl Patrick refused to pay it and the matter only was settled when Jackson got personally involved and demanded payment that day, which staff accommodated and routed through Chao & Associates — one of six firms identified by an external audit of Richland County’s finance department as being worthy of questioning about “concerns regarding malfeasance, fraud or corruption.”
The problems between Hart and the County only escalated from there. After Hart formed the Pinewood Lake Park Foundation as its CEO in April 2015 and that group assumed control of the park in June 2016, Hart’s failure to report expenditures timely or correctly led to the Foundation temporarily being placed in a non-compliant status (until Jackson again intervened) and multiple censures for failure to provide proof of payments, making cash payments without invoices, providing inadequate documentation of expenses, and making expenditures expressly forbidden by the terms of its contract with the County.
Those and other concerns led County Council in October 2016 to remove the Pinewood Lake Park Foundation from its role managing the property effective July 1, 2017, turning all duties over to the Richland County Conservation Commission.
The termination of the agreement with the Foundation and its subsequent lack of any formal relationship with either the park or the County did not prevent Jackson from allocating nearly 90 percent of his personal hospitality-tax allotment for this fiscal year ($135,000 out of $155,000) to Hart for park “promotions” such as $20,000 for a Halloween event and $30,000 for a Lights of Christmas event.
Investigators say they are following the hospitality-tax money trail not just to the Pinewood Park Foundation but to the contractors and consultants it has paid enormous sums to. As exclusively reported by Quorum in June, the Pinewood Lake Park Foundation last year paid $140,000 to two LLCs that did not exist when the Foundation was formed in 2015 — Dynamic Landscape and Perfect Choice Promotion — which were both created within a month and a half of each other and, in the case of Perfect Choice Promotions, had only existed 11 days before it submitted an invoice for $4,200.
The other business, Dynamic Landscape, listed an address on its filing with the South Carolina Secretary of State that does not exist, and the $37,000 worth of landscaping/maintenance work was never authorized by the County, which sent a written reprimand to Hart since the Park, as County property, can only be maintained by County personnel.
Additionally, Quorum’s review of those invoices and related documents found two payments by Hart to herself from the Foundation’s account for cash totaling $6,700.
Neither Dynamic Landscape nor Perfect Choice Promotions, which billed $104,000 for a myriad of design and consulting services, provided a single receipt to support its charges, charges that included costs for printing flyers that calls to local businesses proved was wildly off the mark.
The future of the investigations is unclear — the same officers investigating Jackson, Hart and Ford are investigating Richland County’s penny tax program and handle a number of other cases — and progress, investigators say, is slow.
“It takes as long as it takes,” one investigator said. “You can’t rush anything.”
What the public can know, he said, is simple.
Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @QuorumColumbia and like Quorum on Facebook.