Some Richland legislators want accountability now from Rec Commission board

James Brown III
James Brown III

Members of a divided Richland County legislative delegation have called for answers now from the county recreation commission that is the target of a public corruption probe and lawsuits.

The inquiry from fewer than half of the 17-member State House delegation has triggered a counter allegation from the delegation’s chairman, an African-American senior senator, that the inquiry has racial overtones.

“This is the second time the same group has made an inquiry as it relates to an African-American director,” Sen. John Scott said, referring to then-Richland County election director Lillian McBride.

Sen. Joel Lourie, one of the letter’s authors, said Scott’s suggestion is offensive.

Eight of the county’s legislators wrote a letter on July 11 to the recreation commission’s board, saying in part they “are extremely disturbed by what has been happening at the Recreation Commission in recent months.”

The letter asks the seven commission members a series of questions about the commission’s response to recent allegations and the ongoing, potentially criminal investigations involving director James Brown III and the commission itself.

But Scott said this week’s letter was not approved by the full delegation and should not have been sent on its letterhead.

The Richland Democrat said the delegation should stay out of the matter until law enforcement investigations are complete and that “it’s quite clear this group wants to try Mr. Brown in the newspaper.”

Seven of the eight lawmakers who signed the letter are white. Seven of the nine who did not sign are black.

Lourie, D-Richland, said Scott’s concern about the letterhead is like “talking about what day I want to clean my car when there’s a hurricane outside.”

With no timetable on the law enforcement investigations into the office, legislators must act now to turn the commission around, Lourie said.

“We’ve got a problem over there. We have got women who have alleged being harassed,” said Lourie, who is retiring from the Legislature this year. “To sit back and do nothing to me would be unconscionable. If we fail to act there, perhaps we should examine whether we are serving the public’s best interest.”

The letter was sent amid state and federal law enforcement investigations into allegations of corruption at the Recreation Commission and civil lawsuits accusing commission director Brown of sexual harassment and other improper behavior.

Two board members, Barbara Mickens and board chair Marie Green, have been named in civil lawsuits as well.

Brown earlier this month requested and was granted an indefinite paid leave of absence, according to Green.

That happened after Richland County legislators, who appoint the commission’s board members, called for Brown’s suspension until law enforcement investigations into his office are complete.

Brown for months has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.

The lawmakers’ letter asks for clarification about Brown’s voluntary leave of absence; how the Recreation Commission and its board members are paying to handle civil lawsuits filed against them; whether James A. Brown, James Brown III’s son, is still the commission’s director of recreation after his arrest of drug trafficking charges; and sought details on the commission’s policy on nepotism.

Green replied with her own letter Thursday afternoon. She said Brown was placed on a paid leave of absence July 1 and that the Insurance Reserve Fund is covering the cost of defending civil lawsuits.

James A. Brown was suspended without pay after his May 27 arrest, said Green, who attached a copy of the commission’s nepotism policy to the letter.

“I can assure you that the board and employees of the commission are working hard to stay true (to) our mission which is to serve the recreational needs of the citizens of Richland County,” she wrote.

Lourie said the board is missing accountability and dialogue. State lawmakers can hold hearings to get answers from state agencies, but other means are necessary when dealing with special-purpose districts like the Recreation Commission, he said.

“Put the questions in writing, and let’s get the answers in writing or get them in an open forum,” Lourie said. “We want to work with the commission, and we want to work with the employees to help turn things around there.”

The letter also was signed by Democratic state Sen. Thomas McElveen; Democratic Reps. James Smith, Joe McEachern and Beth Bernstein; Republican Sen. John Courson and Republican Reps. Nathan Ballentine and Kirkman Finlay.

Lourie said the suggestion the letter had anything to do with race is “very offensive to me.”

“When I went after (the state Department of Social Services), I went after a white, Jewish female,” he said. “I’m Jewish. To even nearly suggest any racial overtone or racial motivation is very offensive and very objectionable. I’m very disappointed that (Scott) would take that approach.”

After the 2012 election fiasco, 11 Richland County legislators, including Lourie, signed a resolution demanding McBride, the elections director, resign after roars of criticism over long lines, misplaced ballots and lawsuits.

This week’s letter says the recreation board’s list of duties “includes the responsibility to ensure the person you hire as the director does not create a hostile working environment for the employees of the commission and that the allegations of sexual harassment, drug trafficking and public corruption are properly handled by the board.

“While these matters are pending in civil courts and a criminal investigation, we believe the director’s self-imposed ‘leave of absence’ does not discharge that duty and only continues to erode public confidence in the agency for which you are responsible.”

The lawmakers asked for a public response to each of the questions at the board’s next meeting on July 18, saying “many of us will be in attendance.”

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC