UPDATE: More Money, Participants in Phony Mentor Program Found

January 13, 2016

Investigative Reports

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Note: This story is an update to our original piece about the county’s as-yet-non-existent mentor-protégé program that ran earlier this week. As new documents/names come in, we’ll try to keep you updated with the latest developments

Former Columbia City Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman was not the only person getting paid by Richland County’s penny tax program under the guise of a county “Mentor-Protégé” program that officials say does not exist through Columbia-based engineering firm Davis & Floyd, The Nerve has learned.

Records obtained by The Nerve Tuesday show that Columbia realtor April James of iRealty, already a subcontractor of the penny’s governing Program Development Team with a five-year, $313,000 contract, was awarded $51,000 as a Tier 2 subcontractor to Davis & Floyd.

That contract states that through a “Mentor-Protégé partnership program with Davis & Floyd, Inc., (James) will be trained in the various activities of the Right-of-Way acquisition process.”

In the contract language, drafted in October 2014, James is characterized as already possessing three years’ worth of right-of-way experience.

“Ms. April James founded iRealty in Richland County in 2011 and has since been providing Right-of-Way services for public infrastructure projects.”

With three years of alleged experience, why James would need training to perform right-of-way services on a $51,000 contract is unknown, nor is the inclusion of two other entities designated to assist her, both of which are public relations firms with $1.5 million contracts with the PDT.

“Additionally, Campbell Consulting and BANCO will assist Ms. James in any needed community outreach functions related to Right-of-Way.”

As The Nerve reported last week, Campbell Consulting is owned by Darrell Campbell, who has the $1.5 million contract with the PDT and also is an owner of one of the controlling companies, Brownstone, which has a $27.5 million PDT contract.

On iRealty’s website, the firm is described as “a global online, cloud-based boutique for luxury concierge real estate services. Locally Headquartered in Columbia, SC, globally connected all over the world to keep an eye on your greatest asset.”

No right-of-way experience or projects are mentioned.

Under “Our Agents,” only James is listed, with the trademarked designation of “Realtor” under her name. A search of the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation records finds another agent, Marcus Robinson, showing an active license with iRealty International LLC listed as his employer.

According to the S.C. Secretary of State’s website, iRealtyInternational, LLC, was formed on Nov. 29, 2011, with James as its registered agent and an address of 7 Spotswood Court, which Richland County records show is a home owned by Kevin and April James. iRealty’s current business address listed is 1523 Richland St., a commercial property owned by Calvin Elam of Elam Financial Group, a five-person wealth management and insurance firm which also operates from the same 2,172 square-foot 1523 Richland St. building. Elam is James’ father.

On the professional real estate professional site MLS, James has 15 closings with two active residential listings and four commercial listings, one of which is a lot owned by Robinson at 332 Lake Front Drive in Lost Creek. According to the MLS database, Robinson only sold one home in 2015, to himself. He shows no other sales since 2010.

A right-of-way is an easement that allows another individual to travel across a property owner’s land, such as a road. Utilities use them for power or cable lines. Cities, counties and state’s also use them to widen or alter existing roads.

For right-of-way acquisitions on public infrastructure projects of the kind described in the contract, the South Carolina Department of Transportation publishes extensive guidelines governing them on its website, guidelines that adhere to federal standards. It is clear in the contract that Davis & Floyd expect James to perform to these standards — eventually.

“Our partnership as a team will allow iRealty to grow through right-of-way acquisition on Richland County-owned roadways with the goal to provide acquisition services ultimately on SCDOT owned roadways.

“While participating in the Mentor-Protégé partnership with Davis & Floyd, Ms. James will provide property research and appraisals for the program. One of her roles as a Right-of-Way agent will be to communicate effectively with property owners and provide documentation with the property owner.”

“Following the Mentor-Protégé Program, iRealty will begin the Right-of-Way acquisition process on Richland County-owned roadways and would acquire approximately 100 parcels. As she and her staff progress with the understanding of the Right-of-Way Acquisition process, she will be given additional parcels for acquisition and would progress to acquiring Right-of-Way on SCDOT-owned roadways.”

Only SCDOT-approved Right of Way acquisition firms may perform such work. A list of them is on SCDOT’s website. Davis & Floyd is one of six firms listed as approved to work in South Carolina.

Mike Kotarba is the managing partner at Right of Way Consultants LLC who has had a SCDOT certification for right-of-way services. He said it’s a highly specialized field.

“You don’t start doing it without a lot of training from someone,” Kortaba said Wednesday from his office in Winston-Salem, N.C. “It’s a specialty. It’s not something your average realtor does.”

A message left with Stephen Davis, president and CEO of Davis & Floyd, was not returned. A message left with James at the office of iRealty International also was not returned.

According to MyCarolina.org, James was a cheerleader at USC until she graduated in 2006. An online search also reveals James listed as the founder of “YOGACHEER: Training for the Inner Spirit,” on a website established in June 2011 offering fitness classes and products and training videos.

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