Cindi Ross Scoppe

Tri-County co-op board members enriched themselves at the expense of their neighbors

LET’S SEE IF I’ve got this right: Members of the part-time board that oversees the hired professionals who run the Tri-County Electric Cooperative pay themselves $450 in per diem every time they attend a meeting or other gathering — including political fundraisers — on what they consider co-op business.

It’s routine for them to hold three or four committee meetings — some lasting less than 30 minutes — on separate days in the run-up to a full board meeting, rather than on the day of that meeting: 45 last year, in addition to 13 board meetings. They attend conferences across the country, often claiming pay for several days longer than the conferences last. All the while collecting that $450 per diem. Or really, let’s be honest here, in order to collect it.

For the many 30-minute meetings, that comes out to $900 per hour.

And that’s on top of being reimbursed for mileage, and hotel stays. And getting health insurance and life insurance. For life.

They dine at the finest restaurants, on the co-op’s dime: a $939 Christmas dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Columbia, a $744 dinner at Red Fish Grill during a New Orleans conference. They even give themselves Christmas bonuses, as if they were employees, who do actual work.

About which the board members’ personal attorney tells The State’s Avery Wilks: “Somebody has got to show me somewhere where these people have done something wrong. I’ve seen a bunch of noise. I’ve seen a bunch of people who have been screaming and don’t know what they’re talking about.”

And you thought Dan Johnson was bad?

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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Like Mr. Johnson — the Midlands solicitor who defended his excessive government-funded travel to exotic locales as not violating the law — the co-op’s attorney surely must be conflating “wrong” with “illegal.” Because wrong is just too smack-you-in-the-face obvious for anyone to miss, even someone who makes his living defending the indefensible.

Some things that are wrong are in fact illegal. Often, though, things that are entirely legal are entirely wrong.

In their defense, their attorney tells us that the members of tiny Tri-County’s board, all of whom have been on the board for at least a decade, need lots of training and hand-holding because they are “country people” who are “relatively uneducated.” That might or might not be an insult to the board members; an earlier defense of their $900-per-hour pay was that it was necessary to attract top-shelf professionals to the board.

But it is undoubtedly an insult to “country people,” even the ones who are “relatively uneducated.”

I grew up on a tobacco farm, surrounded by “country people,” many of whom were indeed “relatively uneducated.” And I can tell you that to a person, they knew right from wrong.

They most certainly would have known that you don’t seek out ways to enrich yourself when you agree to serve on the board of a nonprofit — a nonprofit — whose mission is to keep electricity costs low. A nonprofit that is required by law (and decency) to return any profits to its members.

They absolutely would have known that it’s wrong to spread out perfunctory meetings over several days in order to collect $450 each day they met, and in so doing collect an average of $52,000 a year — nearly double the statewide average, and nearly four times the national average. For part-time positions.

Tri-County’s attorney says the board meets so frequently because it’s more involved in co-op business than other boards. Let’s assume that’s true, even though the CEO says it absolutely is not. Why is that?

Sometimes part-time boards get extra involved because the professionals aren’t competent. If that’s the case, the answer is to bring in new management. Not to have part-time “relatively uneducated” people try to do the job.

If, on the other hand, it’s because they are micro-managers, well, that’s their choice, now isn’t it? Not their obligation. Just like a lot of professionals who work a lot more than the standard 40-hour week; they don’t get paid extra for doing that. Likewise, part-time board members who choose to act as though they’re full-time employees have no right to expect to be paid what amount to full-time salaries.

One of the most disturbing things Mr. Wilks has discovered in reporting on Tri-County and the state’s larger co-op community — and I need to say that Mr. Wilks is doing an absolutely amazing job on this story — is that Tri-County’s $450 per diem is not off the charts. It’s actually below the statewide average, which is $457. He was told that other co-ops don’t have such a ridiculous number of meetings, as if that makes it OK to pay anyone $450 to attend a meeting of a nonprofit. It doesn’t. It simply makes Tri-County much worse.

By way of comparison, state legislators receive per diem of around $90 for every day they’re in Columbia on official business. Unlike co-op board members, many of whom live in the same county as the co-op headquarters, legislators drive from all corners of the state. And are reimbursed $90 per day. (Legislators also receive an annual salary of $10,400, which brings total compensation for most of them to around $20,000. And they do a lot more work.)

On Saturday, Tri-County’s members will vote on whether to kick out the six super-spenders who remain on the board of directors. They absolutely should.

Then at their first opportunity, in order to maintain some experience, they should vote back into office Barry Hutto and Jeff Reeves, who accepted the outrageous compensation for a season but eventually realized it was wrong, and resigned this spring when their colleagues refused to rein it in. And they need to fill out the board with people of integrity — country or not, educated or not — who know that serving on the board of a nonprofit means serving. Not bilking your neighbors.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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