In an extraordinary, investigative 31-page letter, 10 of the 17 members of the Richland County legislative delegation members on Thursday asked Gov. Nikki Haley to remove five of the seven members of the Richland County Recreation Commission board.
“This is the worst example of government gone wrong that I’ve ever seen,” said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, one of the lawmakers who signed the letter.
Although Lourie and several other members met with Haley last week, the 10 members in their letter not only request Haley to remove the commissioners, they also list complaints about what they call the board’s rampant abuse of power, malfeasance in office, tolerance of widespread nepotism, a cover-up and wasteful spending. The letter contains extensive documentation.
Not all delegation members agreed that Haley should fire the commissioners.
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“My colleagues are getting ahead of the process, in pressing for removal,” said Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, who did not sign the letter. None of the commissioners have been indicted or convicted, Howard said, and delegation members shouldn’t be asking for people to be removed from office in the absence of formal charges.
Haley said during a news conference Thursday on Hurricane Matthew’s after effects that she is aware of the letter and she “will be ready to work on that next week.”
On Wednesday, a Richland County grand jury indicted the Recreation Commission’s longtime executive director, James Brown III, for repeatedly sexually exploiting female workers, charging him with misconduct in office. The indictment came after a monthslong investigation by the FBI, SLED, the Richland County sheriff’s department, the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s office and the Attorney General’s office.
The charges against Brown say that from 2012 to 2015 he “used his position as executive director to coerce and attempt to coerce female employees into having sexual contact with him.” The charges do not specify how many women are involved. If convicted, he could receive up to 10 years in prison.
The Recreation Commission, which employs 160 people, oversees a countywide sports empire of some 40 facilities and numerous youth and adult programs. Its annual budget is $13 million-plus.
The letter says the commision’s five board members have been enabling Brown by not acting on the agency’s many problems. The lawmakers do not want to remove the other two board members.
County Council funds the Recreation Commision but plays no role in managing it. The legislative delegation has no controlling authority over the board, but it does recommend to the governor who should serve. The governor normally follows the recommendations in appointing people.
On Thursday, board chairwoman J. Marie Green – one of the commissioners the delegation wants fired – announced that Brown had been placed on unpaid suspension. That means he cannot draw his $151,800 pay – one of the highest salaries in county government – until the criminal charges are resolved.
Brown has been on voluntary paid leave since July. That was when a majority of the 17-member Richland state legislative delegation first called on the commission’s board to suspend him. Brown is by far the highest-paid county recreation chief in all South Carolina, the letter says.
The charges in the delegation’s letter included:
▪ Disregarding a hostile work environment for the 160 employees in the recreation department, where many employees lived “in fear of being fired or demoted ... .” Earlier this year, the commissioners paid $35,000-plus for a Columbia law firm to investigate the complaints. After the investigation was done and a report created, commissioners voted 5-2 after a closed-door session to keep Brown on. The commission has refused repeated requests by delegation members to see that report.
▪ Allowing blatant abuses of nepotism. Brown’s son, his daughter and his brother, Jeff Brown, all work at the commission in violation of a state law that prohibits family members from working for another family member. Commission board chair Green also has three family members working at the agency, and commission vice chair Barbara Mickens has two family members. In all, “at least 10 employees” who are related to Brown, his family or one or more of the commissioners work there, the letter said.
▪ Approving overly large pay increases. Since Brown took over as director in 2010, raises and promotions to his family members have totaled $128,272. “In the year before Brown took over, the highest raise was $2,884. Three relatives of board chair Green received a total of $34,997 in raises, with one getting an $18,836 increase. In the past year, Brown got a raise of more than $30,000 – bringing his compensation to $151,800. One other recreation chief in South Carolina makes six figures – that is the Greenville director, who makes $131,520 in the state’s most populous county.
▪ Overlooking “numerous allegations of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior by Brown.”
▪ Incurring excessive litigation costs. From July 2015 to July of this year, the commission spent $105,445 with three law firms: McNair, $53,572; Gignilliat, Savitz & Bettis, $35,278; and Robinson McFadden & Moore, $16,594. In the past five years, the State Insurance Reserve Fund has paid $172,500 in judgments and $81,039 in legal fees fighting discrimination and defamation suits the commission and Brown have lost.
The commissioners “have turned a blind eye to what has been happening there,” the delegation letter said.
In announcing Thursday that Brown had been suspended without pay, commission board chair Green said she would not comment further.
“As this is a legal matter, the Richland County Recreation Commission has no further comment other than Mr. Brown is entitled to defend these allegations and under our constitution is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
In her statement, Green noted “there are no charges against the commission.”
Besides Green, the commission members that the 10 legislators want to remove are: Barbara Mickens, Weston Furgess, George Martin Jr., and Joseph Weeks.
Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office will prosecute the case against Brown. No trial date has been set. The charge is a common law charge that could bring a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Besides Lourie, lawmakers signing the letter were: Rep. Joe McEachern, D-Richland; Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland; Rep. James Smith, D-Richland; Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland; Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland; Rep. Mia McLeod, D-Richland; Sen. John Courson, R-Richland; Rep. MaryGail Douglas, D-Fairfield; and Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter. McElveen’s and Douglas’ districts stretch into Richland County.
Besides Howard, lawmakers not signing the letter were Sens. Darrell Jackson and Johnson Scott, D-Richland; Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland; Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland; Rep. Jimmy Bales, D-Richland; and Chris Hart, D-Richland.
Rutherford said late Thursday that any serious investigation of the delegation letter would find the charges to be without merit. “This is merely something trumped up to get the governor to fire people they don’t like.”
However, Rep. Smith, one of the letter’s signers, said, “It’s clear Recreation Commission members have been serving themselves rather than the citizens of Richland County. Our letter is chock full of evidence and proof. They have utterly failed to exercise proper oversight.”
State reporter Jamie Self contributed.
A majority of Richland County legislators on Thursday called on Gov. Nikki Haley to remove five of the seven members of the county’s Recreation Commission board. The lawmakers included documents they say are evidence the five are not operating in residents’ interest, including this chart, which shows the county-funded agency has at least 10 employees who are related or connected to executive director James Brown III; his son, James A. Brown; or board chair J. Marie Green. Several have received significant raises since their hiring.
Original hire date
Title when hired
Title at promotion
Pay at last promotion
James Brown III
July 31, 1985
Nov. 3, 2010
Placed on unpaid suspension Thursday
James A. Brown
Aug. 5, 2002
June 11, 2016
Director of recreation
Suspended without pay
Jan. 9, 2011
July 1, 2013
March 19, 2010
assistant park manager
Sept. 13, 2015
Previously employed 1995-98 as assistant park manager
June 4, 2015
Seasonal part-time employee
June 4, 2015
Seasonal part-time employee
June 7, 2010
May 24, 2015
March 1, 2015
Feb. 11, 2015
Aug. 24, 2009
Building and grounds worker
Oct. 1, 2015
Interim facility repairman
April 8, 2008
Assistant park manager
Sept. 9, 2013
SOURCE: Richland County Recreation Commission