The controversial director of the Richland County Recreation Commission has been indicted by a county grand jury, which accused him of using his position “to coerce and attempt to coerce female employees into having sexual contact with him.”
James Brown III, whose annual salary is $151,800, was indicted on one count of misconduct in office. Brown faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of the broad charge that can cover a wide range of behavior.
The one-paragraph indictment, signed by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, said Brown misused his position as executive director of the Recreation Commission from 2012 to mid-2015.
The indictment did not say exactly how many female employees Brown had allegedly forced himself on.
Wilson’s office will prosecute the case. No trial date has been set.
The commission oversees a Richland County youth and adult sports empire of numerous programs and 40 public facilities, which include swimming pools, summer camps and an 18-hole golf course. It received $13.3 million last year from the county government and also generates revenue streams from its activities.
According to the commission’s website, its core values are “honesty, trust, respect, caring and integrity.”
Acting director Tara Dickerson could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Reached by telephone Wednesday evening, Weston Furgess, a member of the commission’s seven-member board, said he had no comment “at this time.”
In previous statements, the board has said it does not comment on pending legal or personnel matters.
Brown and the Recreation Commission, along with some other top employees and a pair of board members, are named as defendants in numerous pending civil lawsuits that accuse the director of various inappropriate behaviors, including sexual harassment, bribery, nepotism and creating a hostile work environment.
Although lawsuits, reports of investigations and rumors of misconduct have swirled around the embattled commission for months, Wednesday’s indictment was the first official criminal charge.
On May 27, Brown’s son, James A. Brown, the commission’s director of recreation, was arrested in Richland County on drug trafficking charges. He was suspended without pay the day of his arrest. But the drug charges are not believed related to Wednesday’s indictment. The son’s annual salary was listed at $70,000.
Brown III has been on voluntary paid leave since July, not long after a majority of the 17-member Richland state legislative delegation called on the commission’s board to suspend him.
Brown III has long insisted he is innocent of any wrongdoing. “I welcome the investigation, which I am confident will clear my name personally as the agency’s executive director,” he said in May when The State disclosed the FBI, along with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, SLED and the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s office were investigating him and his agency.
Earlier this year, nine of the 17-member Richland state legislative delegation called for an investigation into the Recreation Commission before later calling for the suspension of Brown and the resignation of five board members who have supported him.
The legislators asked for the immediate resignations of board chair J. Marie Green and vice chair Barbara Mickens – both also named as defendants in civil lawsuits – as well as board members Weston Furgess Jr., George Martin Jr. and Joseph Weeks.
Board members Thomas Clark and Wilbert Lewis, who have been more critical of director Brown, were not asked to resign.
In July, Brown agreed to take a voluntary, paid leave of absence amid the controversy and investigations by local, state and federal law enforcement. The 60-year-old has been the agency’s director since 2010 and with the agency since 1981.
The indictment once again turns the spotlight on the Richland County delegation, who are largely responsible for the creation and perpetuation of the Recreation Commission – a local public agency that, because of how it is structured, generates and uses millions of dollars of public money without being nearly as transparent to the public as other public agencies.
Under state law, the members of the board governing the Recreation Commission are recommended by the delegation and then appointed by the governor. But the board receives its funding from Richland County council and also generates millions in fees. The council has threatened to cut off a significant portion of the agency’s funding if the five board members who have stood behind Brown do not resign.
But a state law perpetuated by delegation members requires County Council to give the Recreation Commission millions of dollars without County Council members, and the public, having any say in the matter.
Agencies like the Recreation Commission date back to an antiquated form of government in South Carolina, when delegation members ran county government and often used their state positions to create local boards that hired public officials’ friends and relatives for county posts.
Wednesday afternoon, nine members of the legislative delegation released a joint statement with individual comments hailing the indictment as an important step and expressing shock at the allegations.
“As a woman and mother of two daughters, I am appalled that the women employed at RCRC have been subjected to such egregious and disgusting conduct by Director James Brown III,” said Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland.
Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said, “I feel like we are moving forward with justice, and that the employees’ nightmare is coming to an end.”
Rep. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, said, “As a parent and citizen of Richland County, this is beyond embarrassing. ... No woman should ever have to deal with this, especially from her employer.”
Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, noted that he and Lourie had tried unsuccessfully in the last legislative session, which ended in June, to turn the governance of the Recreation Commission over to Richland County Council. “I intend to refile the legislation in the next legislative session beginning in January,” Courson said. Lourie is retiring from his senator’s job.
Other state lawmakers included in the joint statement were Rep. Joe McEachern, D-Richland; Rep. James Smith, D-Richland; Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland; Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland; and Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter. McElveen’s district stretches into Richland County.
Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, who in the past has defended members of the Recreation Commission and criticized their largely white delegation critics, said Wednesday he will have no comment until he gets further information on the facts underlying the indictment. Scott is chairman of the delegation.
Lewis Cromer, a Columbia lawyer whose firm is representing several clients who in the past year have filed lawsuits alleging various abuses of power against Brown III and/or the Recreation Commission, said Wednesday he was not surprised by the indictment. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Cromer said.
Major changes are needed at the commission, he said. “What I want to see is that the commission operates correctly.”