Richland County gives penny road managers 1 month to hand over secret documents

Richland County Council has given the managers of its $1 billion road program a one-month deadline to turn over documents about their spending decisions.

Council members on Thursday voted to ask the Program Development Team to release any orders changing the scope of penny tax road projects, what the expenditures were and who approved those changes.

They are also asking the accounting firm Cherry Bekaert, which previously audited the penny tax program, to release the same information, which has previously been covered by a non-disclosure, or NDA, agreement.

“They belong to the citizens of Richland County and we should have it,” said Councilwoman Dalhi Myers.

On Wednesday, Councilman Joe Walker sent his own letter to Cherry Bekaert asking them to release audit results council members had to sign an NDA to review.

Listen to our daily briefing:

Walker indicated in his letter he knows of Richland County residents ready to pursue legal action to get the full audit results.

On Thursday, the council set a deadline for the PDT to turn over the change orders by Aug. 30, and other documents related to the penny program by Sept. 15.

Council members did not say what they would do if the deadlines are not met.

The council voted to end its contract with the PDT earlier this year, believing the county could save money by moving management of the penny program in-house. In the last four years, the group was paid between $5 million and $6 million a year by Richland County.

Some council members were concerned the documents they wanted would no longer be available after the county contract — and the PDT’s reason for being — ends on Nov. 2.

“I know they’ll be leaving in a little bit, but I want it before they go,” said Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson.

The penny program is at least $154 million over the budget approved by voters in a 2012 referendum. Recently, county officials delayed work on $150 million worth of projects that are expected to run over budget.

The PDT, a consortium of three private companies created to manage the penny tax program, said in a statement that the entity has “gone above and beyond the contract requirements (with the county) and provided full access to all of the PDT’s records.”

“The Cherry Bekaert audit was limited in scope and was not an audit of the Penny Program,” the statement reads. “The service provided was an audit of the financial statements of Richland PDT, a private entity. Any findings noted in the report were applicable to the internal controls of Richland PDT, a private business entity and not in the management of the Penny Program.”

PDT program manager David Beaty said Friday has continuously made penny documents available for county staff to review as part of its agreement with Richland County, and made the same documents available to Cherry Bekaert’s accountants to complete the audit.

Cherry Bekaert said in a presentation to the council in May that it was unable to reach a conclusion on how the private consortium operated because of an ongoing legal dispute between Richland County and the PDT over payments. The audit did, however, identify “significant deficiencies” in the joint venture’s internal financing, according to a portion of the report that’s publicly available.

Council members discussed the demands in open session after a vote to go into a closed executive session failed. The voted failed 5-5 when Myers, Chip Jackson, Bill Malinowski, Jim Manning and Joe Walker voted against debating the issue behind closed doors. Dickerson, Gwen Kennedy, Paul Livingston, Yvonne McBride and Chakisse Newton voted in favor. Allison Terracio, who was present, did not vote.

The vote to make the requests was 8-1, with Jackson voting against. Kennedy and Manning did not vote.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC

Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.