Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: If we’re paying contractors to learn their job, what else are taxpayers funding?

A FEW WEEKS ago a prominent businessman emailed Richland County Council members about news of waste, mismanagement and possible corruption in the county’s penny transportation program.

“We don’t need this kind of reputation in the Midlands,” he wrote, urging them to clean up the program lest they sabotage an effort to pass a similar sales tax in Lexington County. “We will never reach our potential if we have this perception.”

And that was before we found out about Brian DeQuincey Newman.

Mr. Newman, of course, was the Columbia City Council member who managed to land a job writing title opinions about land to be purchased or condemned for the county roads program, even though he apparently had no experience writing title opinions and had to be tutored in how to do it. For being tutored, he was paid $38,000, at $200 an hour, in tax money.

Scoppe: What Brian Newman tells us about needed ethics reforms

Mr. Newman is a tiny cog in the $1.1 billion program — someone who received $82,000 and expected to make $398,000 over five years. It’s even possible that he learned his new job well, and only $38,000 of that would have been money down a rat hole.

And although my gut tells me that the politics of the County Council and perhaps of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority that Mr. Newman chaired were involved in his selection, the decision to pay him $200 an hour for remedial training was made by the consortium of three developers who were awarded the contract to run the construction program.

As the online publication The Nerve reported earlier this month, the county’s mentor-protege program that we thought Mr. Newman was participating in hasn’t yet been established; apparently the development team took it upon itself to create its own version of that program — using our tax dollars, mind you. A version that involved awarding a six-figure contract to a political insider with no qualifications and then paying him to be taught how to do the job, as opposed to hiring and then mentoring qualified businesses that simply don’t know the ins and outs of becoming subcontractors or that need help to navigate bonding and insurance requirements.

This is, at the least, grotesque waste. And if there’s that much waste in this one tiny little contract that we discovered by serendipity — if Mr. Newman had bothered to file his taxes, we never would have thought to look at his contract — it’s easy to wonder how much more waste there is in the roads program.

It’s easy to think that someone other than the Richland County Council — which wrote itself a special procurement procedure just for the penny transportation program — needs to examine every single contract in that $1.1 billion program.

Citizens watchdog group will get say in what it needs for Richland penny tax oversight

And if you’re the sort of person who believes that government is inherently wasteful and corrupt, it’s easy to think this proves your point. Which makes those independent examinations all the more important.

In fairness to Richland County, and to critics who think that such waste is inevitable, this certainly isn’t the only contract that is insufficiently monitored.

I read a memo a few days ago from state Inspector General Patrick Maley, sharing his observations from three years of investigating allegations of waste, fraud and abuse at state agencies. One of his concerns involved government outsourcing, which we usually think of as hiring private entities to do work that government traditionally does but which also includes hiring road contractors.

Outsourcing through contracts or grants, he wrote, “seems to be viewed as automatically preferential to adding State employees,” when in fact the state is at “high risk” because of its inability to manage contracts.

“Agencies have a tendency to view their job as essentially complete upon approving a contract/grant,” he wrote, “when in fact outsourcing requires heightened skills in contract/grant monitoring and engaged risk-based oversight to ensure value received by the State.”

For Exhibit A, look no farther than the subcontract that “Richland PDT Joint Venture” signed with Mr. Newman. That subcontract either was not reviewed by anyone with Richland County or else was not reviewed by anyone with the independence and integrity to raise alarms.

Fortunately, we don’t have to look far to find someone who can monitor those contracts.

Blackstone: Richland County penny transportation program must change now

Back in 2012, Richland County Council members promised that if voters approved the transportation tax, they would appoint an independent watchdog group to monitor spending. They even appointed a watchdog group — but one with no teeth and its two front legs missing. When the group complained last year that it couldn’t even get access to official records, the council said, essentially, if you don’t like the set-up, quit.

The letter from the state Revenue Department warning the county to clean up the program might have changed the mood. Councilman Seth Rose has proposed giving the watchdog group a new set of teeth and two front legs, and it looks like the council might be willing to go along. I don’t know that the part-time citizens group has the expertise to review contracts, but one thing it has been asking for is staff with the expertise to help it fulfill its mandate.

Given what we’ve seen, that just might save taxpayers a lot more money than it costs.

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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