Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: How Richland County Council misled public & invited corruption in transportation penny program

Traffic creeps along Harbison Boulevard.
Traffic creeps along Harbison Boulevard. rthompson@thestate.com

WHEN RICHLAND County voters rejected a sales tax increase to pay for transportation in 2010, county leaders realized that the problem was that a lot of people simply didn’t trust them not to turn the money into a slush fund. So when they brought the transportation penny back to voters in 2012, they added a citizens oversight committee.

Although this Transportation Penny Advisory Committee wouldn’t have veto power, tax supporters promised that it would serve as the public’s eyes, ears and mouthpiece, creating so much public pressure that the council would be shamed into spending the money as promised. And by a four-point margin, voters approved the $1.07 billion, 22-year plan to upgrade the bus system and pay for roads and other projects.

But if any voters really believed the Richland County Council was going to let a watchdog group provide real oversight of its spending, and cry foul when things looked wrong, they were disappointed.

Bolton: Richland County’s transportation advisory committee must keep watching

Although the council promptly appointed the committee, it just as promptly emasculated it, denying it resources, expertise, independence and, most importantly, access to information.

When he delivered his annual State of the Penny address in January (yes, that’s a real thing), Chairman Hayes Mizell complained that while people use the words “watchdog” and “oversight” to describe his panel’s work, “in light of the limitations under which the TPAC functions, neither word is accurate.” The committee, he said, “is often informed about matters of the penny implementation after decisions have been made rather than asked for the committee’s advice and recommendations before decisions are made.”

Frustrated over its increasing inability get its hands on even the most basic information in order to monitor progress, review projects and analyze information — that is, to fulfill its mandate to give public reports and raise red flags when necessary — the committee voted in February to ask the council to clarify its authority. The council rejected placing the committee on legal par with the county Planning Commission, which wasn’t quite what it needed but a lot better than what it had. Instead, according to the council’s March 17 minutes, council members voted unanimously to send committee members a copy of the mission statement “with a survey asking if they intend to continue serving under the current mission statement.”

Arrogant doesn’t begin to describe that response. It was, as we said in an editorial at the time, “a slap in the face not only to committee members but also to the voters who approved the sales tax thinking a legitimate watchdog group would look out for their interests.”

Any notion that the watchdog promise was anything more than a ruse, designed to trick voters into thinking they could trust that all those hundreds of millions of dollars in tax funds would be spent appropriately, had been obliterated.

SC agency questions Richland County’s handling of penny sales tax

And now the state Department of Revenue has asked SLED to investigate how the county hired a “Project Development Team” to oversee all of the road work, because “the Council’s adoption of exemptions from established procurement procedures, and certain payments by or to the PDT raises questions of potential public corruption and fraud.”

In a Dec. 3 letter to the county, Revenue Director Rick Reames also cited “multiple instances of illegal activity by individuals and/or companies associated with the Penny Program” that his agency is continuing to investigate, along with other expenditures that “appear to fall outside the parameters” of state law and the county ordinance. Among the concerns are $620,000 in transportation tax money that was spent on a small local business enterprise program whose work is not limited to transportation issues, and $600,000 per year that is being spent to pay two people for “public information services.”

Read the Revenue Department’s letter

I can’t tell you that an oversight committee that was allowed to do its job would have spotted these problems and called out the council early enough to stave off possible criminal acts. But it seems reasonable to think it might have.

As my colleague Warren Bolton warned in April, “it would behoove the county to have an independent advisory body looking over the council’s shoulder” because “There are bound to be mistakes, and we can only pray that nothing worse — some manner of corruption? — occurs.”

The day after The State reported on the corruption allegations, county officials pledged to hire an independent forensic auditor to review the program. I suppose that’s nice, but with SLED and the Revenue Department already investigating, it feels akin to hiring a consultant to examine whether there are problems with the broken lock on the barn door through which the horses already escaped.

Corruption allegations shake Richland County leaders

What the county really needs to do is give the oversight committee the authority it promised. That won’t undo any crimes that may have occurred, but it at least has the potential to prevent new ones. And prevent waste. And demonstrate a little respect for the voters.

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

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