Devine's biggest problem political, not ethical

THERE'S NOTHING wrong with a company whose vice president is married to a member of Columbia City Council applying for a loan to help develop a project in the Sumter-Columbia Empowerment Zone.

Community Assistance Provider is seeking $327,250 from Columbia's loan committee to purchase property at 7311 Patterson Road. The company's vice president, Jamie Devine, a member of the Richland 1 school board, is married to City Council member Tameika Isaac Devine. Since Mr. Devine is simply an employee at the company and Mrs. Devine has no say over who gets the loan, we're compelled to agree with the State Ethics Commission that there's no conflict here.

Even so, it's wise for the loan committee to delay a decision until city officials get a ruling from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city has good reason for requesting HUD's input. Earlier this year, the agency raised questions about two loans, one connected to council member Daniel Rickenmann and the other involving another close relative of Mrs. Devine's. HUD demanded the city explain why the loans did not violate "federal, state and local conflict of interest guidelines."

One of the loans - in the amount of $280,000 - was extended to Veronica Isaac, Mrs. Devine's mother, who used it to purchase an office building that she later leased to Mrs. Devine's law firm. While we saw no conflict in Mrs. Isaac getting the loan, HUD also questioned whether she met the criteria of using the loan to create jobs. Moving an existing law firm into the office building was a "business relocation," which HUD does not allow. The federal agency demanded the city repay the loan. To her credit, Mrs. Isaac did so.

We have long questioned the lack of accountability the city has over empowerment zone funds. This system is structured in a nontraditional way that allows the empowerment zone's loan committee a significant amount of latitude while keeping City Council at arm's length. But while the city doesn't have any say over who gets a loan, city taxpayers are on the hook for the money if HUD determines something doesn't add up. That makes no sense. HUD should reconsider this set-up. Either the elected City Council that is accountable to voters should have more say, or the city should be relieved of the ultimate responsibility for loans HUD determines are bad or violate rules. If City Council were to get direct authority, loans such as the ones connected to Mrs. Devine would indeed be improper.

But as things stand, there's nothing wrong with Mr. Devine's company applying for a loan. And Community Assistance Provider's proposal to build affordable housing appears to be the type of project the empowerment zone was set up to promote.

The way we see it, Mrs. Devine's biggest problem is a political one involving bad timing, not any actual improprieties. This latest scrutiny comes at a time when questions that surrounded the loan to her mother remain fresh in many people's minds. That's no small thing; perception matters. Political opportunists could seize on this moment to confuse potential voters and suggest there's some ethical concern about Mrs. Devine, a two-term council member, as she gears up for a re-election campaign. It's quite possible they might even make some headway.

Mrs. Devine must deal with the perception issue. But that's a different question from whether wrongdoing occurred; on that front, there's nothing there.