PICKENS COUNTY — A new ordinance governing how members of Pickens County Council utilize the Recreation Fund will have its third and final reading at the next regular council meeting, marking an abrupt change in policy and capping the power of any one council member.
The new system implements a board as well as a system of checks and balances, effectively removing personal control over each district’s fund from the individual council members.
“Nobody’s talking about the elephant in the room,” said Councilman Chris Bowers. “But we all know what that elephant is. There needs to be a level of accountability added.”
According to County Administrator Gerald Wilson, in the past, the recreation fund was divvied up between the six districts — $50,000 per district, per year — with funds “rolling over” from one year to the next.
Spending was at the sole discretion of that district’s councilperson.
“It was a disaster waiting to happen,” said Wilson. “And that’s what happened.”
Allegations of misappropriation of the rec funds combined with the appearance of personal gains through projects funded led the newly elected council to freeze the rec fund earlier this year.
According to county documents obtained by The Sentinel-Progress under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, just after the November election, then Councilman-elect Roy Costner approached Wilson with concerns about the Liberty Civic Auditorium (LCA.)
“He (Costner) stated he had been contacted by a citizen about some issues with the Civic Auditorium that may have legal issues,” Wilson’s documentation log reads. “I instructed Ken (Roper) to pull all records related to this matter and see if he saw anything that looks suspicious.”
Documents from the county show a series of bookings to the auditorium through two companies: Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) and O.S. Productions.
According to county employee Barry Chappell, bookings and contract negotiations for performances at the LCA were handled personally by former councilman G. Neil Smith.
When contacted by The Sentinel-Progress, BMI executives acknowledged that Smith is on the Board of Directors for the company but refused to state whether it is a paid position.
BMI was contracted for last year’s Carolina Songwriter Series at the LCA.
“In the past year, the county spent $62,434.00 on performances at the Auditorium. These shows included a Karen Peck concert and three dates of a Carolina Songwriters Series,” reads a county document from Jan. 18, 2017. “Average attendance at these events was between 100-150 people, while ticket sales only generated $1,622.00. The balance of expenses came from taxpayers.”
The concern about O.S. Productions was that the company itself was actually just a front, said Wilson.
“I was concerned that Neil (Smith) was OS Productions and actually the person running the operations,” wrote Wilson in his log.
On Nov. 14, 2016, Wilson, Roper and Chappell met with Smith to address the complaints and go over the county’s findings.
It didn’t go so great.
“During the meeting CM (council member) Smith became very upset that we were even bringing the matter before him,” Wilson documented. “He stated that the recreation fund he was using was his money and we did not question other Council members when they spend their money.”
Wilson said that he, as administrator, has a responsibility to investigate every complaint to determine its validity.
“… Smith looked at I and Ken and flipped a bird at both of us and stated he was coming after us,” the log reads. “He was talking in a loud rude tone.”
Wilson then informed Smith they would need to personally meet with Odell Scott — O.S. Productions — before recommending any contracts and that any future checks would need to be mailed or be picked up — in person — by Scott.
But the investigation didn’t stop there.
In a series of email correspondences with Wells Fargo Bank, County Finance Director Ralph Guarino attempted to find out who was cashing checks issued to O.S. Productions and Pickens County Sheriff Rick Clark was made aware of the situation.
This publication, in addition to Guarino, reached the same brick wall when it came to the name on the Wells Fargo account when bank officials refused to release any names without a subpoena.
Wilson, in the meantime, began requiring invoices for recreation expenses.
“In the past, you (a council member) could call down to the finance office and say ‘I want to cut a check for $25,000 out of my rec fund and have it sent to … whoever,’ and it would be done,” said Wilson. “There was no voting on it, there was no paper trail. It became where council members saw the rec funds as ‘their money’ and they could spend it how they wished.”
In December, Smith turned in a stack of invoices including — among others — one from BMI for $65,000, five from O.S. Productions totalling $31,726.78, and one for $1,400 from the “City of Six Mile.”
The invoices, obtained under FOIA, appeared to have all been generated from the same or similar computer program and none of them contained any official letterheads or authorizing signatures.
In appearance, despite “originating” from different organizations, they were all identical — save for names and amounts.
“I’ve never seen that before and I certainly didn’t send it,” said Rita Martin, town clerk for Six Mile. “We don’t even really use invoices.”
When asked if anyone else would have generated an invoice from the office, Martin was clear it would have had to go through her.
“No one else does that — and I didn’t do it,” she said before pointing out that Six Mile isn’t even a city — it’s a town.
Martin also confirmed Six Mile never received a $1,400 check from the county.
“As far as I knew, the invoices were from who he (Smith) said they were from,” said Wilson. “But these weren’t paid.”
Wilson said that by that time, the election was over and Wilson and Guarino we’re “stalling” until the new council was sworn in.
“We took vacations about then,” said Wilson. “Those invoices never made it out of the hopper.”
On Nov. 28, 2016, Wilson met with Councilman Trey Whitehurst and discussed among other things O.S. Productions and the LCA. Wilson notes in his documentation log that Whitehurst said “Neil was concerned that after the first of the year the new council would come in and try and take control of Neil’s rec account funds.”
A month later, at a special called county council meeting on Dec. 30, Smith attempted to secure “his” funds on his last day in office by transferring $38,735.25 — close to the amount “invoiced” by O.S. Productions — to Whitehurst in Executive Session.
The meeting was not attended by the majority of council members and a quorum was only achieved by the phoning in of (also absent) Councilman Ensley Feemster.
“You don’t have to do this Ensley,” said Sheriff Rick Clark on the phone at the council meeting. “Just hang up the phone.”
Eventually it was decided that a quorum did not exist as a telephone connection can only be used in an emergency.
Although county officials admit they were never able to produce any actual evidence of illegal activity, they agreed there was certainly the appearance of questionable practices.
When Ken Roper was asked why as county attorney he did not report any of his finding to the ethics committee, he cited attorney/client privilege.
“It is always important for an attorney to remember who his client is,” he said. “My client is Pickens County, the organization — not individuals within that organization. In situations such as the one you describe, the rules that govern the practice of law would not allow me to disclose attorney client information to others. Instead, my duty would be to advise the highest authority within the organization of my concerns.”
Multiple attempts were made by this publication to reach both O.S. Productions and former Councilman Smith for comment but neither responded.
Reach Kasie Strickland at 864-855-0355.