Gaston: The Land that Transparency Forgot

February 12, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveHow bad are things in Gaston? A Web site for the Lexington County community – which is heavily in debt thanks in part to embezzlement by trusted officials – is up for sale.

Visit www.townofgaston.com and underneath the words “Town of Gaston: A Great Place to Call Home” is “THIS WEBSITE FOR SALE!!!!! $500.00.”

In fact, many of the icons on the town’s homepage, including those for “Budget and Finance” and “Public Safety” have no other information except to let the viewer know that the Web site is available for purchase.

However, it’s difficult to determine if this is actually the town’s official Web site. That’s because another site purportedly devoted to the community, www.gastonsc.org, is no longer active.

In fact, it appears just about impossible to find any financial information about the town online, making Gaston one of the least-transparent communities in South Carolina.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given the problems the town of 1,500 has had over the past few years.

It was discovered in 2007 that Gaston officials had bilked the town out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, operating the municipality like a family business, according to a 2009 story in The State newspaper.

“Officials drove the town into debt steering jobs, bonuses, cell phones, meals and mileage reimbursements to themselves and relatives,” the paper wrote. “Members of two families were paid at least $288,000 in little more than two fiscal years, according to financial information obtained by The State.”

Gaston’s annual budgets averaged $398,000 during that period. By mid-2007, Gaston owed $202,000 to the Internal Revenue Service and state tax collectors for failing to remit payroll taxes. Town officials also improperly borrowed $24,000 from First Palmetto Savings Bank while making spending and other decisions without formal votes by council, the paper added.

Ex-Mayor Larry Sharpe, former town administrator Jennifer Poole and Jessica Poole, who collected court fines, were indicted on charges of misconduct and embezzling at least $5,000 each. The three have confessed, according to court records, according to The State.

Gaston was so deep in debt that it disbanded its police force in January 2008. In addition to what it owed the IRS and S.C. Department of Revenue, it owed $45,300 in penalties to the state for failing to forward court fines or submit financial reports.

Today, the town is repaying the IRS at the rate of $2,500 a month, but even after all the turmoil of the past few years regarding bookkeeping lapses, Gaston leaders still don’t appear to be paying close attention to finances.

At a Feb. 2 Town Council meeting, Gaston resident Loretta Mack asked council members how much the town was paying the IRS monthly in interest and penalties, Mayor Pro Tem Charlie Sharpe responded, “I don’t know right now. The CPA is supposed to have that when he comes next month.”

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 or kevin@scpolicycouncil.com.