Crime & Courts

Gov. Haley seeks to fire 7 controversial Richland County Recreation board members

Gov. Nikki Haley is moving to fire all seven members of the Richland County Recreation Board.

The rare action by Haley comes after months of lawsuits alleging sexual harassment by recreation director James Brown III, who retired last month after he was indicted for misconduct in office.

It also follows allegations by a bipartisan majority of the 17-member Richland County Legislative Delegation that members of the appointed recreation board that oversaw Brown had grossly mismanaged the recreation commission’s affairs for years.

Lawmakers said board members allowed unwarranted pay raises and widespread nepotism and thus had neglected their duties.

In a 10-page executive order announced Thursday afternoon by the governor’s office, Haley affirmed the charges brought by the delegation majority and named the seven board members she seeks to remove.

They are: chairman J. Marie Green, vice-chair Barbara Mickens, Weston Furgess Jr., George D. Martin Jr., Joseph Weeks, Thomas Clark and Wilbert Lewis.

Efforts to reach board members were unsuccessful. In the past, they largely have refused opportunities to speak publicly about the allegations against them as well as Brown.

“This is an absolute overreach,” said Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, who said Haley should leave the board members alone. “They didn’t do anything illegal or unethical.” Rutherford also said Haley, a Republican, had not removed others from office who were under investigation.

Three other delegation members hailed the governor’s move.

“This is a critical next step to restore public confidence in the Recreation Commission,” said Rep. James Smith, D-Richland.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said delegation members had received numerous complaints from the Recreation Commission’s approximately 160 employees about sexual harassment, a hostile work environment, nepotism and unfair pay raises.

“Employees over there were being trampled on and said they had nowhere to turn,” Lourie said. “The stories we heard were horrific. This board continued to turn a deaf ear to those complaints.”

Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland, praised Haley’s action as “unprecedented but warranted. ... This board will now be held accountable.”

Under the law, the delegation appoints the board members. However, the delegation does not have the power to remove them.

The delegation majority had originally asked the governor to remove five board members – everyone but Lewis and Clark. But after reviewing evidence in the matter, the governor decided to remove all seven, according to her order.

The firings are not immediate. Board members can request a hearing to defend themselves.

That hearing will be Nov. 30 “at a specific time and location to be determined,” the governor’s order said.

After being appointed by the delegation, commission members, like other members of legislatively appointed boards, operate with little public oversight. The commission’s activities are largely funded by Richland County Council, but the council has no direct control over the commission, including how it spends its money.

The recreation commission oversees a network of county youth and adult sports programs and 40 public facilities, which include swimming pools, summer camps and an 18-hole golf course.

It raises large amounts of money from fees generated by the use of its public facilities.

It was to receive $13.3 million from County Council this year. But several months ago, council agreed to freeze the funding at the state-mandated $4.9 million for the 2016-17 financial year until an audit examines how the commission spends its money.

Last month, former recreation chief Brown was indicted by a Richland County grand jury, accused of using his position “to coerce and attempt to coerce female employees into having sexual contact with him.” He says he is innocent.

Brown, whose annual salary was $151,800, faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of the broad charge of misconduct in office, which can cover a wide range of behavior.

State law authorizes the governor to remove county or state officers for certain types of misconduct or wrongful behavior. The law also requires the governor to notify officials of the charges and give the members an opportunity with reasonable notice to have their voices heard.

The governor will appoint a three-person panel to preside over a hearing. The panel will make a recommendation to her. She will have the final decision about whether the members should be removed from office.

In her Thursday order, Haley leveled various charges against board members. They include neglect of duty, incompetency, misfeasance, and malfeasance for such actions as failing to review complaints of nepotism, harassment, retaliation, and intimidation as well as matters related to compensation of employees.

Haley’s order also said:

▪  As recreation director, Brown supervised family members he hired and approved their pay raises in spite of a commission policy banning nepotism. The board knew about Brown’s actions but repeatedly failed to take action.

▪ The board gave Brown a 60 percent pay raise over five years. His $151,800 was more than $35,000 higher than any other county recreation director in the state.

▪ Relatives of Brown who were hired included his brother, his son and four nieces. Brown’s son, James A. Brown, had his salary increased from $34,377 in 2009 to $70,000 in 2013. Earlier this year, Brown was arrested on drug trafficking charges and has been suspended without pay.

▪ Relatives of chairwoman Green who are working for the board include three nephews and a niece.

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