Richland Council has little oversight on personal spending. Where does the money go?

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 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 county 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.

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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 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 third-highest 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.

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 Hampton-Preston 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 county-issued 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 resulted 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.

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