Nashville Junket Cost Taxpayers $10K

November 10, 2015

Investigative Reports

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‘I guess I take back what I said about saving the county money’

A Nov. 2 day-trip to Nashville for 10 Richland County council members and senior staff – plus additional overnight stays for council members who extended their trips – cost Richland County taxpayers more than $10,000 to achieve what some believe could have been accomplished with a conference call.

Seven members of Richland County government – county administrator Tony McDonald, assistant county administrator Warren Harley, county emergency services coordinator Michael Byrd, newly named county flood recovery chief Michael King, council meber Paul Livingston, council chairman Torrey Rush and clerk of council Monique McDaniels – all flew on a chartered flight out of Eagle Aviation for a total of $6,792.85 to Nashville last Monday for a tour of the city and to meet with city officials to talk about how that state capital overcame serious flooding in 2010. That group flew back the same day.

Though he didn’t fly on the trip, which originally was scheduled for the week prior before weather delays moved it, Richland County vice chairman Greg Pearce called the chartered flight a “good use of taxpayer funds that worked out well for the county.”

What Pearce didn’t know until contacted by The Nerve, however, was that three council members – Norman Jackson, Damon Jeter and Kelvin Washington – flew commercially by themselves and stayed overnight. Jeter flew up and back on Delta on Oct. 28-29 for the originally scheduled meeting for a total flight cost of $1,024.40 ($824.20 for an ‘Economy Comfort’ seat + $200 flight change fee). His hotel bill at Homewood Suites was $243.37. Jackson’s flight in Sunday night and out after the Monday meeting was $753.20 round trip, with an additional $185.75 bill for one night at Homewood Suites. Jeter did not fly back up for the Nov. 2 meeting,

Like Jackson, Washington also flew in Sunday but instead of flying back Monday he extended his trip through Tuesday at a flight cost of $583.20 and two-night hotel bill of $429.12. The Nerve requested but was not provided expenses relating to food and/or entertainment for Washington, Jeter and Jackson.

“I did not know people flew up on their own commercially,” Pearce said Monday. “I thought everyone was supposed to take the chartered flight, go up Monday and come back the same day.

“I don’t know why they did that. I didn’t realize anybody had spent the night. I can tell you what was planned and what was supposed to happen, but as to what actually happened, only they know.”

Richland County Council held a regular meeting Tuesday night, Nov. 3. Every member made it but Washington, who flew back Tuesday. Washington did not respond to messages via phone or email. Rush said Washington missed the meeting for “health reasons” and extended his trip to meet with other community stakeholders.

Earlier in October, Washington was behind a failed closed-door effort to have the county pay $1 million to retired general and former Department of Education and Workforce director Abraham Turner’s consulting group for the purposes of “coordinating” relief efforts and directing donated goods, with $924,000 going solely toward salaries for 17 people for five months of work and the rest for lodging, equipment and food expenses plus the use of county vehicles.

For government watchdog groups such as Common Cause and executive director John Crangle, the number of people alone who went make the trip questionable

“How may people went, like 10?,” Crangle said. “That’s almost the whole council. How many people does it take to be in a meeting and bring back information?

“And what could you learn by being there that you couldn’t learn by a telephone or conference call? And if they did absolutely have to send someone, it’s hard to justify 10 people as needing to go. That’s almost the whole council. There’s a big question there as to what was truly necessary or the county and its citizens.”

Crangle said unfortunately, such junkets often do little more than feed the egos of those who go.

“A lot of people enjoy the perks of holding public ofice and act like big shots and fly on planes and go to fancy hotels,” Crangle said. “How much was psychological gratification versus serious benefit to the county is a legitimate question.

“People who hold part-time positions like city or county council, a lot of them are small-timers who don’t have a real job or if they do they don’t make much money and they sufer from status depravtion. So they try to compensate for their lack of money or wealth by taking advantabe of public office. It’s sad that there are so many people like that. It’s a chronic problem for small timers and hustlers who run for and hold public office because they’re only out to serve themselves.”

For Pearce, who has served on Richland County Council for 17 years, the trip was a good idea.

“I think there was a lot to learn, but as to flying commercially and staying on hotels, I don’t have an explanation for that. I guess I take back what I said about saving the county money by everyone taking a chartered flight on the same day.”

Reach Aiken at 254-4411. Email him at ron@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC. Staff researcher Shane McNamee contributed to this report.