Democratic Caucus Director, Former County Councilman Paid Hundreds of Thousands for Penny PR

April 26, 2016

Investigative Reports

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By RON AIKEN

money

$4.5M obligated for PR work; also: PDT team still billing county for coffee, cars

Four firms, including one run by a former Richland County Councilman and another that’s the personal LLC of the executive director of the House Democratic Caucus, have received more than $1.5 million for public relations/outreach work from the Richland County penny tax program since 2014, a review by The Nerve has found.

Analyzing months of reports from the Small and Local Business Enterprise Office – an office that the Department of Revenue (DOR) contends was improperly funded from penny tax revenue and which the county has agreed to repay in full through its general fund – the county paid:

  • $169,687 to Strategic Business & Politics LLC, a single-employee business owned, S.C. Secretary of State records show, by Duane Cooper, the executive director of the South Carolina House Democratic Caucus. The business address is listed as 701 Gervais St., Suite 150-208, which is a mailbox at the UPS Store.
  • $178,809 to Mizzell & Associates, a public relations/marketing firm held by former Richland County Councilman Tony Mizzell. Mizzell, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for Columbia City Council in 2010.
  • $674,440 to P.J. Noble and Associates, Pat Noble’s Columbia-based marketing company that in 2010 was the subject of news reports questioning a $65,000 public relations contract with the City of Columbia over North Main Street improvements. Noble worked in the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety under former Gov. Richard “Dick” Riley.
  • $486,201 to J.B. Ladner & Associates, a one-person firm owned by Clarence Hill, an independent planning professional and former S.C. State professor, for outreach work.

The $1.5 million in public relations/outreach payments is over and above the $3 million awarded to two private firms – BANCO Bannister and Campbell Consulting – for penny tax public relations work. Owners Heyward Bannister and Darrell Campbell are well-known Democratic consultants, with Bannister having run the political campaigns for the penny tax both in 2010, when it was defeated, and again in 2012.

In the days leading up to the 2012 vote and on the day of the vote itself, Bannister claimed to have people on the ground at 80 of 120 polling station, and in a 2014 interview with Mass Transit magazine admitted to focusing on absentee ballots in 2012 after getting “whipped 2-to-1” in absentee voting in 2010. Bannister also is a founding partner of Sunrise, a public relations firm, along with Sen. Darrell Jackson.

As The Nerve previously has reported, Campbell is a one-third owner of Brownstone Construction, one of the three businesses privately managing the entire penny tax program (the other two are Columbia-based M.B. Kahn and lead partner ICA Engineering of Paducah, Kentucky). As a PDT owner, his $1.5 million p.r. deal is a subcontract with himself.

ICA, Brownstone and M.B. Kahn comprise the Program Development Team, or PDT, that according to the contract with Richland County exercises approval authority over all prime and subcontractors without council oversight.

The only county employee who does see all contracts, transportation director Rob Perry, has been out of the office and not answered questions The Nerve sent via email about his oversight role.

For critics of the penny tax’s spending practices, the payment of millions of dollars for public relations work exclusively to firms with deep party and political connections is troubling.

“I think when the county hires people who are already connected with the county, former policymakers, officials and political employees, it is very difficult to explain whether they got the job through connections or qualifications,” said Rep. Kirkman Finlay (R-Richland). “Let’s produce timesheets and talk about outcomes if we want to be transparent.

“Revelations like this are just staggering. They’re unbelievable.”

For members of Richland County Council such as Seth Rose, who was not aware of the additional p.r. payments until receiving a call from The Nerve, such decisions need to be brought back under council’s control and not left to private businesses with no little-to-no public oversight.

“Any time public funds are spent, there should be accountability to the public,” said Rose. “I have sponsored reform measures that would bring greater transparency to the sub-contracting process of the program development team. However, they have yet to be approved by council, or its transportation committee, nearly four months later.”

Overhauling the PDT’s spending on public relations work has been a linchpin of the reform measures DOR has urged Richland County to take.

In its December 2015 letter to Richland County officials outlining deep concerns over the administration of the penny tax program, the Department of Revenue scolded Richland County program for awarding $3 million contracts to BANCO Bannister and Campbell Consulting, contracts DOR characterized as having provided “no documentation” for the work performed and awarded “when an entire public information office already exists within Richland County government and other (project development team) members also provide public relations services.”

In a follow-up letter from February, DOR again reiterated those concerns and added that it had discovered an additional $900,000 paid to other public relations firms, once again stating its concern “about the amount of these contracts compared to work actually performed.”

The county has only said it would review public information expenditures on a “task-by-task expense moving forward,” allowing that once it was able to establish an internal “approved tasking table consistent with SCDOT contract compensation,” it would then go back and review previous expenditures for possible refunding from the general fund.

THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME

Meanwhile, despite The Nerve’s previous reporting on excessive monthly expenditures from the PDT team – expenses that included cars, phones, gas and gourmet coffee to the tune of $564,000 from November 2014 to December 2016 – that spending has continued unabated in the months since as have payments to people trained under a controversial mentor-protégé program that did not exist, according to recent expense reports obtained by The Nerve.

From January through April 2016, the PDT team billed Richland County for:

  • $722,044.44 in administrative expenses (administrative expenses are the second-largest overall penny tax program expenditure behind road widening)
  • received its standard flat fee of $501,666.67/month for a total of $1.505 million for overall program management and
  • submitted $131,346.93 in monthly expense bills (average of $33K/month) including allowances for, among other things, vehicles, computers, cell phones, gas, gourmet coffee, sodas and more.

The PDT also is continuing to pay a former USC cheerleader and realtor and a disgraced former Columbia City Councilman for work they were paid to learn under a phony “mentor-protégé” program.

As first reported by The Nerve, April James of iRealty received $51,000 under the program for training in August 2014. In January she awarded two sub contracts totaling $45,300 by Davis & Floyd for right-of-way acquisitions on North Main Street and Shop Road, while in February she was awarded an additional $3,300 contract for soil boring permissions on Atlas Road.

According to a January invoice, former councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman earned $900 for a title opinion, presumably accomplished before his law license was suspended on Jan. 8 by the S.C. Supreme Court.

Reach Aiken at (803) 254-4411 or email him at ron@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC.