Horsing around: How an ex-lawmaker and his sister involved themselves in a veterans’ therapy program

April 18, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Former S.C. Rep. Mike Pitts pushed for state funding to launch a veterans’ therapy program that his sister positioned herself to manage and was overseen by the state agency that employed her for years, an investigation by The Nerve found.

Two years and $1 million later, the therapy program, called “Herd 2 Human” and operated by Jeff Patterson at his Willowbend Farm in Clinton, Montana, is yet to be implemented in South Carolina. The program involves veterans interacting with provided horses, though not riding on them, to help them deal with their emotions.

Records show that on April 1, the S.C. Vocational Rehabilitation Department (SCVRD) canceled its contract with Patterson “for cause.” Patterson has since filed complaints with the S.C. Office of Inspector General and state procurement office, according to documents he provided to The Nerve.

Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve, Pitts, a Laurens County Republican, acknowledged he sought funding for the program while he was a lawmaker and involved his sister, Rhonda Pitts, a licensed professional counselor and a former longtime manager at SCVRD, in early discussions about the program.

But he denied having any knowledge about her plans to do paid work for the program – contradicting several text messages between Patterson and him that Patterson provided to The Nerve.

“All I asked her to do was to evaluate it (Patterson’s program) for me,” Pitts told The Nerve.

No one has accused Pitts, an ex-police officer and former chairman of the House Ethics Committee, of doing anything wrong. State ethics law bans public officials from using their positions to “obtain an economic interest for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated.”

Patterson, a former private investigator, said he received $25,000 out of the total $1 million in appropriations over last fiscal year and this, but doesn’t know how the rest of the money has been spent. He presented a three-day therapy session at Lander University in March 2017 and two more three-day sessions at Clemson University in January of this year.

“The reasons veterans seek the H2H program is that they are struggling with emotions, many suicidal,” he wrote in his April 3 complaint to the state procurement office, adding that it is a “travesty that we advertised and offered a program that many testified has helped them and then pull the rug out at the 11th hour …”

Patterson told The Nerve that then-Rep. Pitts invited him to hold the March 2017 session at Lander, where Pitts earned his bachelor’s degree, and at the time introduced him to his sister, who earlier had been in communication with him. Both Pitts were excited after watching how a group of veterans interacted with the provided horses, according to Patterson.

“Mike said he was going to get the money” for the program, while Rhonda said she was “going to retire from Voc Rehab, and that was going to allow her to help out with this program,” Patterson recalled. He said the pair also offered to travel to his Montana farm to become certified instructors for the program.

Mike Pitts then was a member of the powerful budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, chairing a budget subcommittee.

But nothing happened for months after lawmakers passed a state budget proviso, which took effect July 1, 2017, transferring $500,000 through SCVRD to Lander specifically for Patterson’s program, Patterson said.

In October 2017, Lander advertised for bids to run a horse-therapy program, which Patterson said surprised him because the budget proviso already had earmarked money for his program. Patterson said Rhonda Pitts informed him at the time he was “not qualified” to bid on a state contract and offered to submit a proposal that would put her in charge of the project with him as a subcontractor.

But that proposed deal fell through with Lander, apparently because her offer was over-budget, Patterson said, adding he never saw her written proposal.

Screen shots of several text messages that Patterson provided to The Nerve between him and Mike Pitts in 2017 suggest that the then-lawmaker was aware of his sister’s financial plans and the state procurement process.

“Hi Mike, are we still moving forward with building Herd 2 Human (in) South Carolina (?),” Patterson asked Pitts in an Aug. 13, 2017, text message.

“Yes. Government moves slowly,” Pitts replied.

On Oct. 19, 2017, Patterson texted Pitts about Lander University’s decision to cancel its “request for proposals (RFP)” for a horse-therapy program, just eight days after issuing the advertisement.

“Hi Mike, I see that Lander canceled their RFP for the Herd 2 Human program. Do you know what happens from here?” Patterson wrote. “The email they sent Rhonda said her cost estimate exceeded their budget. I would have thought they would have asked her to negotiate or trim the costs to fit the budget?”

“They will,” Pitts replied.

“Good. Our season is slipping away on us and I know they expect to have a number of people through the program by sp(r)ing so I am getting a little nervous about how I do that on short notice,” Patterson wrote back.

“They may have to adjust (their) timeline,” Pitts responded.

Asked whether that exchange showed he had knowledge of his sister’s financial plans for the program, Pitts told The Nerve, “I have no idea,” adding he didn’t recall the conversation.

In March 2018, Rhonda Pitts, who by then had retired from SCVRD and started her own counseling business, submitted a written proposal to SCVRD – again seeking to put her in charge of the therapy program, with Patterson as a subcontractor, according to a copy of the proposal that Patterson provided to The Nerve.

Patterson said as with her initial 2017 offer, that proposal wasn’t accepted, though he didn’t know the reason.

No therapy sessions through Patterson’s program were held in South Carolina in 2018. Lawmakers last year passed another budget proviso, which took effect July 1, authorizing $500,000 more through SCVRD for a similar program without specifically designating Patterson’s operation.

Pitts told The Nerve he recalled he “wrote” one of the two budget provisos and might have crafted the other one as well, though he wasn’t sure.

SCVRD advertised for bids last summer and decided in November to award Patterson a $250,000 contract, records show. Patterson said he received a $25,000 “up-front” fee in December – a figure cited in an agency document he provided to The Nerve.

Patterson said Rhonda Pitts helped him prepare the bid.

“Rhonda was saying, ‘Jeff, let me help you … because I used to work there. I was upper management there,’” he recalled.

Patterson provided The Nerve with a copy of a separate contract, dated Dec. 28, between him and Rhonda Pitts in which he would act as the contractor for “Phase 1” of the therapy program, with Pitts providing counseling services as a subcontractor. Pitts was to be paid a maximum of $75,000 under the contract.

Patterson said to date, though, he has received no more payments from SCVRD after holding two three-day therapy sessions in January at Clemson University, which SCVRD required under the contract. He didn’t know if Rhonda Pitts received any payments from SCVRD or Lander since 2017.

Rhonda Pitts, who lives in Pickens, did not respond to phone and written messages this week from The Nerve seeking comment.

Mike Pitts said he didn’t know how any of the total appropriated $1 million was spent.

First elected in 2002, Pitts resigned from the House in January in a failed bid to become the next director of the S.C. Conservation Bank, a state land-preservation agency.

Veterans in need

Pitts said he took a greater interest in post-traumatic stress issues involving veterans several years ago after learning about the suicide rate among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans returning to the U.S., and began researching horse-therapy programs nationwide.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a “psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault,” according to the American Psychiatric Association.

PTSD is a serious issue for many of the nation’s veterans. A 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that in 2014, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide every day. There were 143 veteran suicide deaths in 2014 in South Carolina, according to the study.

Contacted recently by The Nerve, three S.C. veterans who went through Patterson’s program described it as beneficial to them.

“It made me just open up and be honest with myself where I was at and where I wanted to go,” said Robert Bentley of Jonesville, who attended a three-day session in January at Clemson University.

“In public you can kind of put yourself behind a mask,” said Mark Taylor of Lexington County, who also attended a January session. “That horse doesn’t see that mask. It sees you.”

“I have my days when I actually found a happy place where my mind can go off to,” said Lori Caldwell of Goose Creek, who attended the first three-day session in March 2017 at Lander University.

On Patterson’s Herd 2 Human Facebook page, S.C. National Guard Lt. Col. Marion Bulwinkle said in a video that based on his observations of the 2017 session, “This program, from what I have seen today, will be one of those tools that we can put into our tool kit to assist these veterans to help them out in their life’s struggles.”

Rhonda Pitts is shown in a separate video praising the program.

“As a clinician, in all of the years that I have been doing this and all types of therapy techniques,” she said, “I have never seen the changes that I’ve seen as rapidly with this. To me, it’s amazing.”

Pitts’ early involvement

Mona Johnson of Greenwood, who describes herself as a longtime advocate for veterans, told The Nerve she attended a therapy session at Patterson’s Montana farm to experience the program first-hand, and initially reached out to Mike Pitts, who was her representative then, to recommend the program for S.C. veterans.

Johnson earlier this year submitted a request under the state Freedom of Information Act to Lander University, located in Greenwood, for details on expenditures related to the program from April 2016 to December 2018. She was provided with a list of total expenditures in various categories including “classified salaries,” “temporary help,” “maintenance/renovation” and “vehicles,” though no other details were listed.

The Nerve is seeking a more detailed accounting through an FOIA request submitted to Lander on March 25. Patterson said before the first budget proviso took effect in 2017, the university paid him approximately $4,200 for his time and expenses in presenting the March 2017 session.

Mike and Rhonda Pitts expressed an early interest in the Herd 2 Human program, according to Patterson, who provided The Nerve with a copy of a Jan. 19, 2017, email to him from Rhonda Pitts, which read in part: “I spoke with Mike regarding your trip to SC in March (2017). … It was a pleasure speaking with you and look forward to meeting you.”

Caldwell, the Goose Creek veteran, told The Nerve that then-Rep. Pitts “specifically asked each one of us veterans individually if we would be willing to go and talk to other political members about the program and so forth, for budgeting to be provided.”

Mike Pitts told The Nerve that before Patterson held the 2017 session, he invited his sister to participate in an initial meeting with Johnson and representatives of Lander University and other state and local organizations about the possibility of developing a horse-therapy program in South Carolina to deal with the issue of veteran suicides. He noted that PTSD therapy is one of his sister’s “specialties as a counselor.”

In its initial budget request for fiscal 2018, which began July 1, 2017, SCVRD did not ask for any money for a horse-therapy program, according to state Executive Budget Office records. But the House Ways and Means Committee, which Pitts served on, included a proviso that directed SCVRD to transfer $500,000 to Lander for the “operation” of the university’s equestrian center, and to “create a Herd 2 Human pilot program to provide equine assisted psychotherapy geared towards military members as a method of treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other similar disorders.”

Patterson told The Nerve that Pitts in 2017 discussed with him the $500,000 amount to launch the program. He recalled that Lander University initially brought up the need to have a licensed counselor for the program, and that Rhonda Pitts had expressed interest to him about working in the program.

Rhonda Pitts has been a licensed professional counselor since 1997, state licensing records show. According to her online LinkedIn account, she began operating her own consulting business, called All Ways Tranquil, in June 2017.

“I decided after over 30 years in public service to start my own business,” her account reads.

Her total compensation as a SCVRD “program manager 1” when she retired was $101,591, which included a $2,923 bonus, according to the state salary database.

Silent treatment

Patterson said he became increasingly frustrated in the latter half of 2017 with Lander University’s lack of progress on getting the therapy program started there.

In a Jan. 8, 2018, email to Patterson, a copy of which he provided to The Nerve, Chris Giles, Lander’s director of veteran services, cited the March 2017 therapy session at Lander, the 2017-18 budget proviso enactment, the university’s RFP in October 2017, and a meeting on Dec. 1, 2017, with an unnamed “Clinical PTSD Consultant.”

“The administration will be meeting in the coming weeks to discuss Lander University’s next step in establishing our Equestrian PTSD program here at Lander University,” Giles wrote.

On Jan. 26, 2018, Patterson emailed Mike Pitts, complaining that he hadn’t heard back from Giles or “anyone there at Lander U.”

“It is pretty frustrating to know how much this program can help and that they are sitting there on the resources to make it happen without any communication,” Patterson wrote, adding, “An employee of the Army there in SC just messaged me asking what I can do to help him with his soldiers at risk.”

Patterson told The Nerve that Pitts didn’t respond to that email, and Lander never implemented his program.

Rhonda Pitts, in her March 19, 2018, written proposal to Felicia Johnson, who heads SCVRD, and Roxzanne Breland, the agency’s board chairwoman, made a pitch for the “development and implementation of a PTSD Equestrian Therapy Program that will closely resemble the Herd 2 Human Program.”

Under that proposal, which SCVRD didn’t accept, Pitts would have been the “project manager to oversee the project from planning to implementation and successful graduation of at minimum one group.” The total projected cost was $350,000, with $120,000 to be paid to Patterson as a subcontractor for “his personal fees and consultation.”

In its initial budget request for this fiscal year, which started July 1, SCVRD asked that the previous budget proviso authorizing Patterson’s program be removed, contending the agency legally could not spend federal or “other” funds for Lander’s equestrian center, and that using the agency’s general funds for that purpose could “lead to a federal match penalty in future state fiscal years,” records show.

Lawmakers ultimately approved a proviso authorizing $500,000 out of non-recurring state funds to SCVRD to “develop an equine therapy program with an emphasis on serving veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” The proviso doesn’t mention Patterson’s program.

Contract canceled

Although Patterson won a contract last year with SCVRD, it didn’t last long.

In a March 15 letter to Patterson, SCVRD procurement officer Jennifer Coleman outlined seven “deficiency” areas, contending, among other things, that “proper itemized invoices” or a marketing plan had not been submitted as required. He was given 10 days to correct the problems listed in the letter, a copy of which he provided to The Nerve.

Coleman notified Patterson in a follow-up April 1 letter that the agency was terminating its contract with him “for cause,” citing the “unresolved non-performance issues.”

Patterson denied all of the allegations in separate written complaints on April 3 to S.C. Procurement Services and the state Office of Inspector General. In an email response that day, a representative in the Office of Inspector General said, “Please be assured the information you sent is being reviewed for possible action.”

Patterson, in an April 11 letter to Mike Spicer, the state’s chief procurement office, questioned how $975,000 of the appropriated collective $1 million was spent, contending, “It certainly hasn’t reached the veterans and others suffering with PTSD.”

The Nerve on March 25 submitted an FOIA request to SCVRD for agency records related to Patterson’s program. The department on Wednesday released a number of documents, which The Nerve is reviewing and will report about at a later date.

Patterson also is demanding $300,000 from Lander University, claiming in an April 5 letter to university president Richard Cosentino that the school “not only cheated Willowbend Farm, but numerous veterans who were waiting to participate in the Herd 2 Human program.” Patterson this week said he had not received a response from Cosentino.

SCVRD has asked state lawmakers for $500,000 in recurring general funds for next fiscal year, which starts July 1, to “provide continuity in the development” of the “Equestrian Center PTSD Program,” which was “established through non-recurring funds and is not sustainable without funding beyond” this fiscal year, according to an agency document provided to the Senate Finance Committee.

The House has passed its version of the approximately $30 billion, 2019-20 state budget, which is now in the Senate. Any differences will be worked out in a joint conference committee, and a final version approved by the Legislature will be sent to Gov. Henry McMaster for his consideration.

Asked Tuesday by The Nerve if he believed Patterson’s program should be continued in South Carolina, Mike Pitts replied, “I think it will be beneficial to have a program like Herd 2 Human, and I have no reason not to think Herd 2 Human is a good program.”

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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