More than 20 Richland contracts were improperly signed, administrator says

The quiet Pinewood Lake Park has fallen under scrutiny over questions about its construction and its finances.
The quiet Pinewood Lake Park has fallen under scrutiny over questions about its construction and its finances. tglantz@thestate.com

More than 20 Richland County contracts in the past seven years were improperly signed for projects that each cost as much as “mid-six figures,” the interim county administrator has told The State newspaper.

The discovery prompted Gerald Seals to enforce a county law that limits who is authorized to sign contracts. He will be the sole person to sign, as county law requires, and the contracts will be vetted by the county’s legal office, he said.

Seals said he discovered 20 to 30 contracts during his investigation this summer when questions arose about a contract to build a second, $4.5 million phase of Pinewood Lake Park in Lower Richland.

Seals said he does not know the dollar amount of all the questioned contracts. But by his own estimate that each contract bound the county to between five- and mid-six-figure agreements, the total would be a minimum of $200,000 to $10 million.

It remains unclear whether the contracts are legally valid as signed.

He did say his findings resulted in some administrators’ job duties being reassigned. But no one was terminated solely because of the improper contract-signing practice, he said.

However, two senior administrators – Roxanne Ancheta and Warren Harley – no longer work for Richland County, according to some members of County Council. Council Vice Chairman Greg Pearce said his understanding is they left voluntarily in October and received severance packages.

Seals said he discovered a practice of allowing people in the county administrator’s office, as well as some subordinates, to sign contracts that obligate the county – all without legal reviews by the county attorney’s office. County procurement law states that the administrator signs contracts.

“What was alarming to me is they were signed by a variety of people,” Seals said. And, “in my investigation, I was concerned that legal (the county attorney’s office) had not approved this.”

Seals said he ordered a ban in August on anyone but himself signing contracts, and now ensures they are first reviewed by the county legal staff. That’s following the law, Seals said.

“I can’t go back five, six years and fix that,” he said. “However, we can correct the practice.”

Moving forward

Seals said he does not know the total dollar value of the questioned contracts, which date to 2010.

That information would require pulling the documents from county archives, he said. Instead, his focus was on stopping the practice.

Seals would say only that each contract covered a range of expenditures that included some purchases made without competitive bids, public works projects and change orders to existing contracts.

The administrator would not name the county employees involved or say how many.

“I am not interested in casting aspersions toward previous staff,” said Seals, whose one-year contract as county administrator expires in June. “We will not spend our time looking in the rearview mirror.”

Seals would not say the staffers in question “violated” county law or policy.

He prefers to say the practice was “not consistent” with county procurement law and policy. The word violate “speaks to ... intentionality,” Seals said. “I did not find that.”

Neither the county’s procurement ordinances nor its policies need to be revised – just applied consistently, he said.

Unanswered questions

Seals said he disclosed his findings as part of his and County Council’s commitment to being more transparent in an effort to improve relations with residents.

In the past four years alone, a councilman was removed from office after tax law violations and county government offices such as the election and recreation boards – which are not under the control of council or the administrator – have been involved in controversies, investigations and, in some cases, criminal charges.

Seals rejected a reporter’s questions about whether not being fully transparent about the contracts could undercut the pledge of openness and accountability.

Among the unanswered questions are:

▪  The total amount of public money the county is committed to by the improper contracts.

▪  An accounting of the work that each of the contracts covered.

▪  Whether the questioned contracts are invalidated and should be reissued. Efforts by the newspaper to get a legal opinion from the S.C. Association of Counties went unanswered.

▪  How, or if at all, the county was injured or exposed legally by the former, long-standing practice.

“Transparency speaks to what is the standard that we apply today,” Seals said. “It is not transparent going back 20 years ago and trying to fix something that is over.”

“What we’re focusing in on is how do we make this government credible to the people who are paying the taxes,” he said. “We will be open. I believe in that.”

A sampling of council members showed they are split about whether Seals informed the body about the questioned contracts.

Chairman Torrey Rush said Seals told council in general terms. But Rush said he did not know the number of contracts involved. “Mr. Seals has informed us there was a practice that he didn’t feel followed the ordinance.”

But council vice chair Pearce, and the former chairman, Paul Livingston, said they could not remember being informed of the matter before a reporter called them.

“I know that it wasn’t on an agenda,” Pearce said of council meetings. “I know that.”

Livingston simply said “No” when asked about his knowledge of the improperly signed contracts. “I was aware of questions about Pinewood. I’m not aware of the numbers you’re talking about. Based on your conversation, I’m eager to go look.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

Pinewood Lake Park

Richland County Council decided in October to pay Chao & Associates Inc. an additional $4.5 million to complete construction at the 44-acre park off Old Garners Ferry Road. Council also took management of the park from a foundation it created and transferred oversight to the county’s Conservation Commission. Pinewood is the first park the commission will oversee. The foundation contract expires in June.

▪  Interim County Administrator Gerald Seals began looking into the park after he learned the second, $4.5 million phase that includes an amphitheater and events center, was granted to Columbia’s Chao firm without competitive bids. After his examination, Seals concluded that the original “design, build” contract would allow Chao to continue with the project and that it made sense practically and financially to stick with the firm. The second phase is scheduled for completion in December 2017.

▪  As of Oct. 31, the county had paid the Chao firm $1,674,556 to design and build the Pinewood Lake project, a county spokeswoman said. In addition to the $4.5 million commitment for phase two, the county had spent $2,550,000 to buy and develop the property, Seals said in a report to council.

▪  County spokeswoman Beverly Harris said the Conservation Commission is in the process of developing plans for several natural areas. Pinewood Lake park fits into that plan, which would cover thousands of acres intended for conservation, preservation and public use.