Richland Coun­cil has lit­tle over­sight on per­sonal spend­ing

The State (Sunday) - - Local - BY SARAH EL­LIS sel­lis@thes­tate.com

Jim Man­ning is a break­fast guy.

Nor­man Jack­son goes all out for Asian food.

Gwen Kennedy likes fast food and chain steak­houses.

You can tell a lot about Richland County Coun­cil mem­bers by where and how of­ten they swipe their credit cards — us­ing your tax dol­lars. At the Ole Timey butcher shop. At gas sta­tions. At the Opry­land re­sort. At the Cheese­cake Fac­tory in Char­lotte. At J.C. Pen­ney.

Ten of Richland County’s 11 coun­cil mem­bers col­lec­tively spent more than $64,000 in tax­payer money at their per­sonal dis­cre­tion in the past year, ac­cord­ing to credit card state­ments and re­im­burse­ment forms from June 2017 to July 2018 re­viewed by The State news­pa­per.

The spend­ing guide­lines are loose, and mul­ti­ple du­pli­cate charges ap­pear to have gone un­no­ticed and un­cor­rected in the past year.

The bulk of coun­cil’s per­sonal spend­ing — about 73 per­cent — was done by four coun­cil mem­bers: Man­ning, Jack­son, Kennedy and Dalhi My­ers. Among those four, tax­payer-funded ex­penses in­clude 456 back­packs, a car tire, mem­ber­ships to River­banks Zoo and Gar­den and the NAACP, pro­fes­sional

TEN OF RICHLAND COUNTY’S 11 COUN­CIL MEM­BERS COL­LEC­TIVELY SPENT MORE THAN $64,000 IN TAX­PAYER MONEY AT THEIR PER­SONAL DIS­CRE­TION IN THE PAST YEAR, AC­CORD­ING TO DOC­U­MENTS RE­VIEWED THE BY THE STATE NEWS­PA­PER.

pho­tographs, a $534 trip to Stein-mart and thou­sands of dol­lars in ga­so­line and meals.

Most of that spend­ing, from a flight to New Or­leans to a rental car to Colum­bus, Ohio, to a $257 meal at Bone­fish Grill, ap­pears to fol­low the county’s broad guide­lines and goes un­flagged by

of­fi­cials.

Coun­cil mem­bers are paid a $17,777 salary each year. In ad­di­tion to their salary, each mem­ber is al­lowed up to $3,500 for train­ing, $3,500 for travel re­lated to that train­ing and an ad­di­tional $12,000 in dis­cre­tionary spend­ing for other pur­poses.

“Doesn’t that strike you as a lot?” said Rusty Depass, a Richland County cit­i­zen ac­tivist who has sued the county in the past over ques­tion­able spend­ing. “It strikes me as an enor­mous amount of money . ... Are these peo­ple try­ing to sup­port them­selves by be­ing on Richland County Coun­cil?”

Coun­cil mem­bers have the op­tion to have a county-pro­vided Bank of Amer­ica credit card, and they can file for re­im­burse­ment for ex­penses not paid for with the card.

County pro­ce­dures gen­er­ally out­line how credit cards should and should not be used: “for le­git­i­mate county busi­ness” and not for things such as cash ad­vances, gift cards, pur­chase of per­sonal cloth­ing, ga­so­line and ve­hi­cle re­pairs, ex­cept in emer­gency sit­u­a­tions.

Two coun­cil mem­bers, Kennedy and Jack­son, dou­ble charged the county for mul­ti­ple ex­penses in the past year, adding up to sev­eral hun­dred dol­lars in ques­tion­able re­im­burse­ments.

Jack­son on five oc­ca­sions re­ceived two pay­ments for the same meals by sub­mit­ting mul­ti­ple re­ceipts.

Kennedy re­ceived an ad­vance al­lowance for out-of-town trips, then made ad­di­tional charges on her county credit card for travel ex­penses.

Jack­son told The State he was un­aware he had re­ceived du­pli­cate re­im­burse­ments. Kennedy did not re­turn mul­ti­ple mes­sages left by The State.

“That, to me, is a hot mess,” said Man­ning, when told of the du­pli­cate re­im­burse­ments to some coun­cil mem­bers. “I thought they were look­ing at the stuff I send in down there. And if I ac­ci­den­tally sent a re­ceipt twice, I sure enough would have thought and hoped and as­sumed that some­body would have sent that back to me . ... It’s a lit­tle fright­en­ing to me to be find­ing out that there’s no­body got my back down there.”

Large spend­ing ac­counts, loose guide­lines and lit­tle over­sight open the door for gray-area spend­ing and low ac­count­abil­ity, some watch­dogs say.

“When you give some­body a credit card, man, some peo­ple tend to get out of con­trol real quick,” said John Cran­gle, the re­tired di­rec­tor of the ethics group S.C. Com­mon Cause. He’s also the Demo­cratic can­di­date for S.C. House Dis­trict 75, run­ning against in­cum­bent Rep. Kirk­man Fin­lay.

Un­su­per­vised spend­ing “is a wide­spread prob­lem, and it’s part of the gen­eral prob­lem in South Carolina of the fox guard­ing the hen house, where these peo­ple are in charge of their own eth­i­cal en­force­ment, which is a feel­ing they can do what­ever they want,” Cran­gle said.

“I al­ways ask about any­thing that could be ques­tion­able,” said My­ers, who spent more than $11,000 in the past year. “I’m not do­ing any­thing that I think would be out­side of any rules, and I wouldn’t use it for any per­sonal things. I don’t think rules are a bad thing.”

Some coun­cil mem­bers spent only a few hun­dred dol­lars in the past year. Only one coun­cil mem­ber, Seth Rose, did not use any dis­cre­tionary funds.

“Every year, I’ve said ‘no’ to the tax­payer-funded credit card,” Rose said. “Ob­vi­ously, there are coun­cil mem­bers that don’t share the same val­ues that I have when it comes to tax­payer money. We re­ceive a salary. We re­ceive in­sur­ance. I didn’t run for of­fice to have my gas and other things funded by cit­i­zens.”

KENNEDY USES COUNTY CARD FOR PER­SONAL ITEMS

Kennedy racked up more than $2,600 in gas sta­tion charges in 13 months. She swiped her card at a gas sta­tion 101 times, some­times mul­ti­ple times in a day or mul­ti­ple days back to back, ac­cord­ing to her credit card state­ments.

For ex­am­ple, on July 20, 2017, four sep­a­rate gas sta­tion charges ap­pear on Kennedy’s credit card state­ment: $8.53 at Cir­cle K in For­est Acres, $20 at the same Cir­cle K, $22.02 at a Shell sta­tion in Columbia and $30 at a Shell sta­tion in Columbia.

A month later, on Aug. 25, 26 and 27, charges ap­pear at a Sunoco sta­tion in Columbia for $25, a Shell sta­tion in Columbia for $22.12 and $20 at the same Shell sta­tion, re­spec­tively.

Other sim­i­lar ex­am­ples ap­pear through­out 2017 and 2018.

Gas sta­tion charges ac­count for about a quar­ter of the more than $10,000 Kennedy spent be­tween June 2017 and July 2018. No other coun­cil mem­ber charged the county more for car travel, in­clud­ing My­ers, whose dis­trict cov­ers roughly one-third of the county, and Man­ning, who metic­u­lously filed for mileage re­im­burse­ment, which pays more than just the cost of gas.

Kennedy did not re­turn mul­ti­ple mes­sages from The State news­pa­per.

Kennedy’s fre­quent credit card-swip­ing ap­pears to have bled into per­sonal spend­ing in the past year. Charges on her county-is­sued card in­clude:

$119 at J.C. Pen­ney in Columbia on Aug. 6, 2017

$49.04 at Ole Timey meat mar­ket in Columbia on Sept. 23, 2017

$33.05 at Calvin Klein in Myr­tle Beach, dur­ing the Richland County Coun­cil re­treat on Jan. 25, 2018

$250 at Ross in Columbia on Feb. 5, 2018

$534.64 at Stein-mart in Columbia on Feb. 16, 2018

From her credit card state­ments, it is not clear what the pur­poses of those pur­chases were.

On Feb. 27, Kennedy re­im­bursed the county $957.15 for charges she made on her county credit card, ac­cord­ing to emails among county staff mem­bers. It is not clear ex­actly which ex­penses she paid back, but the Calvin Klein, Ross and Stein-mart pur­chases ap­pear to have been re­paid, ac­cord­ing to the emails.

Kennedy was the third­high­est spender on County Coun­cil in the past year, rack­ing up more than $10,000 in ex­penses.

In one of her two pre­vi­ous stints on County Coun­cil, from 1990-1997, Kennedy was one of the top coun­cil spenders then, too, The State news­pa­per re­ported. The State re­ported she spent more than $11,000 in less than a year, from July 1996 to April 1997, which was more than twice what most other coun­cil mem­bers spent in that time.

In the midst of her sec­ond stint on coun­cil, from 2009-2012, the Free Times news­pa­per re­ported Kennedy over­spent her dis­cre­tionary funds in 2011.

Kennedy was crit­i­cized by some for be­ing one of two coun­cil mem­bers who took a tax­payer-funded trip to Hawaii for more than $3,000 each for the Western In­ter­state Re­gion Con­fer­ence in 1997.

‘‘ I AL­WAYS ASK ABOUT ANY­THING THAT COULD BE QUES­TION­ABLE. I’M NOT DO­ING ANY­THING THAT I THINK WOULD BE OUT­SIDE OF ANY RULES, AND I WOULDN’T USE IT FOR ANY PER­SONAL THINGS. I DON’T THINK RULES ARE A BAD THING.

Dalhi My­ers, Richland County Coun­cil

GET­TING AROUND RICHLAND COUNTY, AND BE­YOND

For the coun­cil’s four big­gest spenders, rou­tine ex­penses col­lec­tively add up to some­times thou­sands of dol­lars a month, in­clud­ing driv­ing costs, meals on the road and re­fresh­ments for com­mu­nity meet­ings.

It costs tax­pay­ers about $6 when­ever Man­ning drives from his For­est Acres home to a Richland County Coun­cil meet­ing at 2020 Hamp­ton St. down­town.

The Dis­trict 8 coun­cil­man is metic­u­lous about mileage, fil­ing for re­im­burse­ment for car trips to coun­cil and com­mu­nity meet­ings, rib­bon cut­tings ($6.54 to drive to the His­toric Columbia Hamp­ton­pre­ston Man­sion), break­fasts ($5.40 to Eggs Up Grill), air­ports ($100.28 to Char­lotte and back for a flight to Bos­ton) and var­i­ous other ap­pear­ances as a County Coun­cil rep­re­sen­ta­tive, in­clud­ing $5.99 to drive to Columbia Col­lege for Columbia Mayor Steve Ben­jamin’s “State of the County Seat” ad­dress on Jan. 31, 2018, as Man­ning wrote on his re­im­burse­ment form.

At about $0.54 per mile, mileage re­im­burse­ments cover more than just the cost of ga­so­line, tak­ing into ac­count wear and tear on a ve­hi­cle.

By keep­ing a mileage log, “You know ev­ery­where I’m go­ing. It’s the stan­dard mileage rate,” Man­ning said.

While Man­ning keeps a mileage log, Kennedy and My­ers swipe their coun­tyis­sued credit cards at the gas sta­tion, pre­sum­ably to cover their work-re­lated trav­els.

“Mine is the most un­usual dis­trict,” My­ers said. “I’m try­ing to get to lit­er­ally 300 miles worth of peo­ple to let them know I’m avail­able.”

My­ers’ Dis­trict 10 is the county’s largest ge­o­graph­i­cally, by far, stretch­ing from Hop­kins in the west, to the low­est tip of Lower Richland in the south, to the edge of Sumter County in the east, to In­ter­state 20 in the north.

“I’m try­ing to cover some­times four to six com­mu­nity meet­ings per night to be able to drop off book bags or dough­nuts,” My­ers said.

De­spite the size of her dis­trict, My­ers spent about $221 at gas sta­tions on her county credit card, a small frac­tion of what Kennedy spent at gas sta­tions in a year.

My­ers noted she’s ac­tu­ally sav­ing the county money by pur­chas­ing ga­so­line rather than col­lect­ing mileage re­im­burse­ment.

My­ers’ trav­els also re­county sulted in an­other $202 charge to the county: a new car tire.

My­ers said she had been vis­it­ing sev­eral free-stand­ing emer­gency rooms in the At­lanta area in late March of this year to learn more about how they op­er­ate be­cause “we’ve been bat­ter­ing about a free-stand­ing emer­gency room in my area or Nor­man Jack­son’s all year.”

One of those sites was un­der con­struc­tion, My­ers said, and she drove over some­thing that dam­aged one of her tires. Be­cause she was on county busi­ness when the tire was dam­aged, county staff told her she could charge the new tire on her county credit card, My­ers said.

“I will charge le­git­i­mate ex­penses, be­cause I be­lieve that’s rea­son­able,” My­ers said.

Be­sides Kennedy, My­ers and Man­ning, no other coun­cil mem­bers charged the county for gas or mileage over the past year, other than col­lect­ing mileage re­im­burse­ment for driv­ing to the coun­cil’s an­nual re­treat in Myr­tle Beach and the an­nual S.C. As­so­ci­a­tion of Coun­ties meet­ings in Hil­ton Head.

SPEND­ING TO IM­PROVE THE COUNTY?

County Coun­cil’s spend­ing ways aren’t new. The State re­ported in 1997 that coun­cil mem­bers spent tax money on items rang­ing from leather brief­cases and of­fice fur­ni­ture to bas­ket­ball tick­ets for con­stituents and com­mu­nity bar­be­cue din­ners.

But coun­cil mem­bers now have more money to spend at their dis­cre­tion than ever be­fore.

In 2017, at My­ers’ pro­posal, County Coun­cil mem­bers voted to in­crease their train­ing and travel bud­gets to $7,000, for a to­tal of $19,000 in dis­cre­tionary spend­ing. At the time, My­ers said it would al­low coun­cil mem­bers to be bet­ter trained to man­age the county.

Sev­eral coun­cil mem­bers used their in­di­vid­ual county bud­gets for con­fer­ences and train­ings over the past year.

Man­ning trav­eled to out-of-state con­fer­ences more than any other coun­cil mem­ber be­tween July 2017 and July 2018, ex­pens­ing trips to Bos­ton, New Or­leans, Min­neapo­lis, Colum­bus, Port­land, Raleigh and Nash­ville. The con­fer­ences he at­tended were for pur­poses in­clud­ing anti-sex-traf­fick­ing, home­less­ness, ur­ban de­vel­op­ment and so­cial work.

“I take this coun­cil stuff se­ri­ous,” Man­ning said. “And when some of my col­leagues are brag­ging about, ‘I don’t use my money,’ well, all they’re say­ing to me is, ‘I don’t care about go­ing to any con­fer­ence any time to find out what other peo­ple are do­ing for me to bring some­thing to the ta­ble in Richland County.’”

Other coun­cil mem­bers spent thou­sands on train­ing events, out-of-town con­fer­ences and in­ter­na­tional eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment trips.

Thou­sands of dol­lars also went to Richland County com­mu­nity causes, in­clud­ing spon­sor­ships and mem­ber­ships to lo­cal non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions, re­fresh­ments for com­mu­nity meet­ings and more than $3,000 spent by My­ers on 456 back­packs, 240 pen­cil sharp­en­ers and 348 pen­cil cases to dis­trib­ute to chil­dren in her dis­trict.

“They’re for kids who need them. I think that’s a good use,” My­ers said. “I think it’s a more rea­son­able tax spend­ing than put­ting them in jail later (be­cause we’re) help­ing them get a good ed­u­ca­tion.”

“There’s no fri­vol­ity there,” My­ers said.

TRACY GLANTZ tglantz@thes­tate.com

For­mer Richland County ad­min­is­tra­tor Ger­ald Seals waits for a spe­cially called meet­ing of the Richland County Coun­cil to start on April 9. Coun­cil mem­bers pic­tured are Nor­man Jack­son, Bill Mali­nowski and Joyce Dick­er­son.

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