A slim majority of Richland County legislators pressed harder Wednesday for answers from the county Recreation Commission, the target of a corruption probe and lawsuits.
The latest inquiry — an open-records request by the legislators for more information about allegations of nepotism and sexual harassment against the commission’s embattled director — again triggered a complaint by an African-American legislator that his fellow lawmakers are interfering with an ongoing investigation.
“All they’re doing is blowing smoke,” Democratic state Rep. Leon Howard said of the nine lawmakers who requested the information.
The mostly white legislative delegation is interfering with ongoing law enforcement investigations, Howard added. “I don’t have the privilege that those guys have, to do all these crazy things and get away with it.”
However, state Sen. Joel Lourie, one of the authors of the open-records request, said it is “insulting and ludicrous to think that this has any racial overtone whatsoever.”
“My family and I have a very proud record of community and race relations for the last 50 years,” said the Richland Democrat, who will retire at the end of the year. “I doubt there is anyone else other than Leon Howard that believes the words that are coming out of his mouth.”
Nine of the county’s 17-member State House delegation filed the request for more information Wednesday with the Richland County Recreation Commission’s board.
Eight of the nine legislators who submitted the request are white. Seven of the eight who did not sign the request are black.
It is roughly the same group that caused a stir in mid-July by sending a letter to the commission asking for its response to allegations and ongoing investigations involving director James Brown III and the commission, which is appointed by the legislative delegation.
Lourie said a recent report on the independent journalism website quorumcolumbia.org called into question the validity of the commission’s response to that letter, prompting the open-records request.
The new request asks for documents that show how the commission is paying to defend civil lawsuits filed against employees and board members. Lourie said the request became necessary after an online news report apparently contradicted the commission’s response.
Brown went on voluntary paid leave in July, not long after Richland legislators called for the commission’s board to suspend him. Meanwhile, Richland County Council has frozen the majority of the commission’s budget until an audit examines how the agency spends its money.
In their request Wednesday, the legislators said they “continue to be alarmed and extremely concerned about decisions the Commission has made.”
In July, State Sen. John Scott, the chairman of the county’s legislative delegation, said the delegation’s previous request for information had racial overtones.
The Richland Democrat would not comment on Wednesday’s request, saying only he is “really careful that the delegation doesn’t get caught up in assassination of character.”
“Let them run with it,” Scott said. “I’m going to stay completely out of it.”
Rep. Howard said he is concerned the delegation’s public requests of the commission have “tainted the minds” of Richland County residents who might be in a jury pool if the ongoing investigations result in charges.
“Lourie is acting out of school,” Howard said. “He seems to be getting a lot of courage to act out now that he’s leaving. Why not stand down and let the investigation play out?”
Lourie said the delegation must ensure the commission’s problems do not cause it to cut jobs or services for residents.
“This investigation could take months or longer,” he said. “At the end of the day, we as a delegation have a responsibility to the people of Richland County that the affairs of the commission are done in a fair and orderly process.”
The lawmakers on Wednesday requested:
▪ Employment information, including dates of hires and promotions, for any Recreation Commission employees related to Brown or board members.
▪ Documents related to investigations of sexual harassment or other allegations or complaints against Brown from July 2011 to August 2016.
▪ Billing information for payments to attorneys from July 2011 to August 2016, plus “what budgetary decisions were made to compensate for the additional unbudgeted amounts of attorneys’ fees.”
The open-records request was signed by six Democrats — Lourie, state Sen. Thomas McElveen, and state Reps. James Smith, Joe McEachern, Beth Bernstein and Mary Gail Douglas — and three Republicans — state Sen. John Courson and state Reps. Nathan Ballentine and Kirkman Finlay.