Kickbacks, Corruption, Abuse Plague Richland Recreation Commission

April 13, 2016

Investigative Reports

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By RON AIKEN

Rich Rec Bldg

Employee: Executive director paid board members for protection

UPDATE: The day after this story ran, members of the Richland County legislative delegation held a press conference seeking law enforcement action. Almost immediately, investigations were launched by state and local law enforcement agencies and the FBI, resulting quickly in the arrest of the executive director’s son on multiple felony drug counts with intent to distribute. In October, the investigations bore fruit when executive director James Brown was indicted on misconduct in office by a state grand jury and was allowed to retire. Concurrently,  a majority of the Richland County legislative delegation had been calling for the resignation of five of the seven board members who supported the director – including the two mentioned in this story as having allegedly received financial favors – and after they refused to leave office voluntarily in late November/early December Gov. Nikki Haley chose to exercise her power to remove those board members from office for malfeasance, incompetence and neglect of duty, leaving just one of the original seven commissioners in place.

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The exchanges took place in parking lots, mostly.

The Garner’s Ferry Kentucky Fried Chicken. A Wal-Mart just up the street. The main office of the Richland County Recreation Commission at 7473 Parklane Rd.

What was exchanged was cash money, approximately $1,200 per month in an envelope, from Richland County Recreation Commission executive director James Brown III to Richland County Recreation Commission board chair Marie Green, according to Darryl Davis, a former Recreation Commission employee who was with Mr. Brown at  approximately 12 separate handoffs over the course of three years from 2014 to 2016.

Not only did Brown pay Green regularly, as Davis and multiple other sources attest both in pending lawsuits and in testimony to The Nerve, but those sources also say Brown periodically paid for the power and water bills of another board member, Barbara Mickens, bought both women new tires for their cars and routinely used recreation department personnel to make household improvements.

But the complaints against Brown don’t stop there.

In fact, they only begin to tell the story of a board-protected executive director who has survived accusations of sexual harassment (with one lawsuit still pending), nepotism (Brown’s son, brother and daughter all have positions of authority at the recreation commission), bullying (repeated transferring and demoting of employees who speak against him) and misuse of power (using subordinates for personal gain).

What’s more, not only did Brown earlier this month survive an internal investigation from an outside attorney into complaints about his affairs, he emerged empowered on the other side, thanks to a 5-2 vote of confidence from the board that’s chaired by Green and vice-chaired by Mickens.

It’s little wonder he refers to himself around the office, sources say, as “the most powerful man in South Carolina.”

‘IT’S LIKE A MOB FAMILY’

For this story, The Nerve spoke to more than 15 current and former employees, commission members, elected officials and attorneys familiar with the cases against Brown and the recently completed independent investigation – an investigation that Richland County Recreation Commission spokesperson David Stringer has not released despite a Freedom of Information Act request.

So tight is the secrecy around the report and the desire to keep it from the public that not even the chair of Richland County Council, Torrey Rush, has been able to get a copy.

“I’ve asked, and I get nothing,” Rush said. “It’s very frustrating.”

What the commission cannot hide are the personal stories of those who have been mistreated, harassed, demoted and fired by a man who brags about payments he makes to board members and how he has nothing to fear from employees who complain, sources say, because “(Brown) knows he has the votes to do whatever he wants and he tells people that to their face,” Davis said.

Stories about Brown’s abuse of power aren’t hard to find.

James Brown III, Richland County Recreation Commission executive director.

James Brown III, Richland County Recreation Commission executive director.

There’s the story of Sunshine Eskew, a 54-year-old who worked her way up from part-time bus driver carrying senior citizens and delivering meals to programming administrative coordinator at the main office. She was demoted to a second-shift job and fired two months later after sticking up for her daughter, Jasmine, a recreation commission employee who Brown’s brother, Jeff, had been harassing.

Then there’s Patricia Middleton, who increased patronage from 800 people a month to 2,000 as manager of the Adult Service Center on Parklane Road. She enjoyed Brown’s favor until his brother, Jeff, decided he wanted her job. She was fired by mail while out on sick leave.

Zenethia Brown (no relation) was the director of communications making $56,000 a year with a master’s degree. She says she was demoted to an entry-level, second-shift position paying $20,000 a year because Brown suspected she was the author of an anonymous letter criticizing him, which she says she didn’t write.

“You just can’t believe what it’s really like unless you’re there,” Zenethia said. “After 10 years of working there and just one write-up I was fired just two weeks before I got my longevity check for missing a meeting. There wasn’t a month I was there when someone wasn’t moved, wasn’t demoted, and it never had anything to do with their abilities.

“It’s like a mob family. People live in constant fear for their jobs.”

Regarding family, when objections were raised by board member Wilbert Lewis last year about nepotism at the recreation commission, Brown had Stringer propose changes to commission policy governing the employment of relatives (policy No. 070).

At the Jan. 25 regular board meeting, Stringer proposed adding an addendum to the policy with language taken directly from the S.C. Ethics Commission that narrowly defines “immediate family member” as referring only to a child residing in the public employee’s household, a spouse or a dependent.

None of Brown’s immediate family who work at the recreation commission – son James (director of recreation), daughter Tiffani (manager of the Garners Ferry Technology Center) and brother Jeff (manager of the Adult Activity Center on Parklane Road) – meet that definition.

Nor do Brown’s son’s soon-to-be father-in-law, brother-in-law and cousin-in-law or Brown’s three nieces, all of whom have full- or part-time jobs with the recreation commission.

YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR

Darryl Davis started working at the recreation commission in the summer of 2014 and quickly caught Brown’s eye.

Darryl Davis, former Richland County Recreation Commission employee.

Darryl Davis, former Richland County Recreation Commission employee.

“After I got on he saw my talent in doing floors,” Davis said. “All the gym floors at that time were messed up, and I got them back up to par, looking real good. He saw how good I was at it and he’d send me off to do other jobs.

“From there on we got tighter than tight.”

So tight, in fact, that Davis began getting other kinds of assignments outside the scope of his duties in the grounds department.

“(Board member) Ms. (Barbara) Mickens, she works at Antioch Baptist Church, and (Brown) had me go out there to do the church floors for them,” Davis said. “I also cleaned up around the house for his mother-in-law, installed a chandelier at his house, help people move.

“Me and other guys would wash his car and his son’s car, I took a new TV up in (human resource manager) Erica Small’s house. I washed her car, too. It was all on county time, but I would get overtime for it.

“A lot of guys would. He got recreation guys to do all kinds of work – carpenter work, plumbing work. He’d call and say, “I need you to go do this for me, and I’ll take care of you with overtime. And he did.”

Being “tighter than tight” with Brown and having a job where he could be mobile most any day meant he often accompanied Brown on errands – errands such as delivering bribes.

“He had no problem me being there with him when he gave money – always cash in envelopes – to Ms. Green,” Davis said. “He’d say, ‘You got to feed the hand that feeds you.’ I also saw him write personal checks to Ms. Mickens to help her out with her utilities. He said, ‘How else do you think I get the raises I get?’”

J. Marie Green, Richland County Recreation Commission board chair.

J. Marie Green, Richland County Recreation Commission board chair.

After four years of making $126,500 a year, Brown received a $25,300 raise for FY 2015-16 while the assistant executive director, Kenya Bryant, did not receive a raise despite having made the same amount for the previous three years ($101,000). According to numerous sources, Brown makes no secret at the office of his financial support for Greene and Mickens.

In the two active lawsuits filed against Brown, Greene, Mickens and Stringer by James and Bryant, both allege “Brown stated that he helped Board Members Green and Mickens out financially and otherwise since they were not working; that board member (Weston) Furgess was on his side; and that Board Member (George) Martin voted with Defendant Green.”

Never was this block of votes more useful to Brown that when labor lawyer Linda Edwards of Gignilliat Savitz & Bettis was tasked by the McNair law firm, the agency of record for the recreation commission, to perform an investigation into Brown’s activities in the wake of a lawsuit filed by Andrea Fripp James, currently the commission’s CFO and division head for financial operations.

Barbara Mickens, Richland County Recreation Commission vice chair.

Barbara Mickens, Richland County Recreation Commission vice chair.

After hours of testimony from numerous employees, the board received Edwards’ report and took it up at a special called meeting on April 4. With Brown not in attendance, the board met for approximately an hour in executive session to discuss a personnel matter.

When the board came out, it announced no decision was made, meaning no action was taken on the report. Instead, Furgess made a motion to “support” Brown, which passed 5-2, with only new board member Thomas Clark and Lewis voting against the motion.

The results of that show of support from Green, Mickens, Martin, Furgess and new member Joseph Weeks were immediate. The very next day Brown returned to work and fired Kenya Bryant, his assistant executive director. According a lawsuit Bryant filed against Brown, Mickens, Green and Stringer two days later, Brown fired Bryant”for taking part in the investigation.”

Another  top employee, operations division head Taurus Lewis, also was suspended the same day Bryant was fired.

LEGISLATIVE LETHARGY

If anyone thought the investigation would scare Brown, it had the opposite effect.

“It didn’t scare him, it empowered him,” said a current employee who did not wish to be identified for fear of losing their job. “He came in the next day smiling, just on Cloud Nine.

“A lot of people here were hoping for something to come out of that, and we were just crushed. When you think of the taxpayer dollars that went into that investigation (estimated at $30,000), for them to just ignore the findings is appalling.

“We’re trapped. You can’t go to the board, you can’t go to HR because if you do, you’re done, and the legislative delegation turns a deaf ear to us. Where is the justice?”

For one former board member, finding justice for employees was impossible. Todd Latiff, who served from 2011 to 2016, just cycled off the commission and moved back to the Upstate. He said his frustration with fellow board members made service agonizing.

“I saw first-hand what was happening there and what (Brown) was doing, moving employees, demoting them,” Latiff said. “Basically, everything you’ve heard is true. It’s a travesty for those employees, and my heart goes out to them. My biggest disappointment is that I couldn’t be a catalyst for change.”

It’s not as if he didn’t try.

When multiple complaints about Brown first surfaced to the board back in 2014, the commission voted 5-2 in favor of doing an internal investigation on Sept. 22, using local attorney Joe McCulloch. Only Green and Mickens voted against it.

A month later, however, at a meeting on Oct. 20, Latiff was shocked to discover that two members – Furgess and Martin – had switched their votes and made a motion to rescind the investigation. Weiss and Latiff protested vigorously to no avail, leaving Latiff to make a motion “to remove Ms. Green as Chairwoman of the Richland County Recreation Commission for failure to perform her duties as outlined by the by-laws and support the decisions by the Board.

The motion was seconded by Weiss and failed by a 5-2 vote.

For change to happen, it has to come from the Richland County legislative delegation. Only it selects the seven-member board that governs the recreation commission, manages its budget of $13.4 million for FY 2015-16 and has the authority to hire and fire an executive director.

As one of only four recreation commissions in the state constituted as a special purpose district, the only role county council plays is to fund it, a fact that has long irritated County Councilman Greg Pearce.

“The things I’ve heard and keep hearing over and over, it’s frustrating knowing there’s nothing you can do,” Pearce said. “You just hope the board does the right thing.”

Neither Brown, Green, Mickens nor Stringer responded to specific questions for this story.

Such silence doesn’t surprise Davis.

“They don’t think they have to answer to nobody,” Davis said. “Not me, not you. They been doing it so long, they think they’re untouchable.”

It’s clear the wounds from his experience have not yet healed. After losing his job, Davis had to remove his son from college in North Carolina because he could no longer afford the expense.

“You shouldn’t have to wake up every morning like I did and wonder if you can provide for your family,” Davis said. “I had to call my son and tell him to come home. How can I look at him now?

“It’s hard, man. It’s still real, real hard.”

Reach Aiken at (803) 254-411. Email him at ron@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC. Like what we’re doing? Sign up for email alerts to receive breaking news at the top right-hand side of the page.