Richland County Council member Kelvin Washington pleaded guilty Wednesday to misdemeanor charges related to failure to file state income tax returns and pay taxes.
Judge J. Mark Hayes ordered Washington to pay a $2,500 fine and $1,000 in court costs and gave him probation in lieu of jail time. The probation will be vacated once Washington pays the $2,500.
During the hearing at the Richland County courthouse, asked by Judge Hayes if he had anything to say, Washington, 52, said he had lost track of paying his income taxes during a time of personal and professional change.
“It was a combination of the minutiae of life, transitioning from working at the state Department of Transportation to private industry, and also taking care of the community – I didn’t just take care of my personal stuff,” Washington told a reporter after the hearing.
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Washington, a self-employed engineering consultant, also told a reporter he “most definitely” apologized for his actions.
During the hearing, prosecutor Allen Myrick said that Washington by mid-January has both filed his back tax returns and paid all $7,200 of his back taxes that were due for the tax years 2012, 2013 and 2014.
Myrick also indicated that Washington’s position as a County Council member was relevant to the charges.
“Mr. Washington is an educated man. He is a public servant, and as a public servant, he is obligated to set a standard,” said Myrick, a special assistant attorney general who works with the Department of Revenue.
On County council, Washington has represented Lower Richland, which includes the communities of Hopkins, Eastover and Gadsden, since 2008.
After the hearing, Washington and his lawyers, Tim Rogers and Mike Duncan, indicated he would be paying the $2,500 fine soon. Also at the hearing was former Richland County Council member Bernice Scott, who is Washington’s mother-in-law.
Washington could have gotten one year in prison and a $10,000 fine for each of the three tax counts against him.
Washington was arrested Jan. 5 along with former Columbia City Council member Brian DeQuincey Newman.
Newman, who pleaded guilty the same day he was arrested, avoided prison and was sentenced to probation for failing to file income tax returns and failing to pay state taxes for two years. He is now off probation but his law license has been suspended.
The charges against Newman and Washington grew out of an ongoing S.C. Department of Revenue investigation into the county’s penny-on-the-dollar sales tax program, which was passed in 2012 to pay for transportation projects when Washington was the County Council chairman.
The two men’s failure to pay income taxes was apparently discovered in an early phase of the DOR investigation into possible public corruption in connection with the penny sales tax.
However, the income tax charges against Newman and Washington are not linked to any public corruption or misuse of public money, officials said.
Washington was charged with three counts of failing to file income tax returns for 2012, 2013 and 2014, for a total $426,000 in alleged unreported income.
Washington doesn’t have to give up his office. A public official convicted of a misdemeanor can’t be forced to leave office, said ethics expert John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause of South Carolina.
Asked after Wednesday’s hearing if he intended to resign, Washington said no.
Washington, who holds a degree in electrical engineering from S.C. State University, worked 25-plus years for the S.C. Department of Transportation in engineering and planning. Now retired from DOT, Washington is a self-employed consultant in public relations and transportation.
During DOR’s investigation of penny tax details, evidence of possible public corruption and questionable spending in Richland County’s handling of revenue generated by the penny sales tax has turned up, according to a December letter sent by DOR officials to county officials.
The letter was made public by the Department of Revenue. The agency referred its findings to State Law Enforcement Division for an investigation into any potential criminal matters.
As a county councilman, Washington helps make decisions about where the penny sales tax revenue goes.
The charges against Washington and Newman, an attorney who once worked for the 5th Circuit solicitor’s office and whose father is a state judge, were unexpected.
Washington is working with the IRS to resolve any questions about his federal income tax returns, Duncan said.
Washington will also have to pay a civil assessment on penalties and interest for the $7,200 in state taxes he did not pay. That amount will be set by the Department of Revenue.