10 of 17 delegation members call for RCRC resignations

Lawmakers McEachern, Finlay, Lourie, Ballentine, Smith and Bernstein this morning.

Lawmakers McEachern, Finlay, Lourie, Ballentine, Smith and Bernstein this morning.

Well over half of the Richland County Legislative delegation today called on five members of the Richland County Recreation Commission to resign because of multiple incidents of malfeasance.

The 10 lawmakers demanding accountability are:

  • Sen. John Courson
  • Sen. Joel Lourie
  • Sen. Thomas McElveen
  • Rep. Nathan Ballentine
  • Rep. Beth Bernstein
  • Rep. Mary Gail Douglas
  • Rep. Kirkman Finlay
  • Rep. Joe McEachern
  • Rep. Mia McLeod
  • Rep. James Smith

Six of the 10 who signed the letter demanding the resignations — Lourie, Ballentine, Bernstein, Finlay, McEachern and Smith — appeared and spoke at a press conference at the State House this morning. Sen. Lourie was the chief spokesman, beginning and ending the prepared presentation.

The group emphasized that what they are doing is independent of investigations into alleged criminal wrongdoing. They said five of the seven commission members should resign immediately because of the following “acts of malfeasance:”

  1. “Disregarded the hostile work environment for employees.”
  2. “Blatant abuses of nepotism.”
  3. “Approval of irresponsible compensation.”
  4. “Multiple allegations of sexual harassment and other inappropriate conduct.”
  5. “Lack of effective oversight.”
  6. “Excessive litigation and costs.”

The five commissioners the lawmakers said should resign are:

  1. J. Marie Green, Chair
  2. Barbara Mickens, Vice Chair
  3. Weston A Furgess Jr., Secretary
  4. George D. Martin Jr.
  5. Joseph B. Weeks

The lawmakers also shared some information they had FOIed from the commission. One of the highlights of that was a spreadsheet showing the salaries of the 11 commission employees who make more than $50,000.acts of malfeasance

Seven of those 11 are named “Brown.”

With a recent raise of more than $30,000, the executive director, James Brown III, is currently making $151,800. He’s still receiving that salary even though he is on “voluntary” leave in response to the ongoing scandals centered around him.

Nice non-work if you can get it, huh? OK, back to the news.

The legislators also released figures showing that Brown is paid far more than other county recreation chiefs across the state. Of the big-county salaries listed, only one other was as high as six figures — that was the Greenville County director, with a mean salary of $131,520.

“Clearly, we have an unaccountable board, with no oversight,” said Sen. Lourie. “I regret that we didn’t step in earlier.”

Other points from the presser:

  • Rep. Smith said of the five commissioners, “This can only end in their resignations,” implying that there were avenues for removing any who don’t quit on their own. He wasn’t specific about how that might be done. But he served notice that today’s presser is not a one-time thing, that the pressure will continue until the problem commissioners are gone. Their offense is that they have been “serving themselves first, serving Mr. Brown and his family first,” at the expense of serving the public.
  • Rep. McEachern — the only African-American member present (which wouldn’t be relevant except for the way some other lawmakers have injected race into the issue) — spoke in particular of the way the commission has failed conscientious employees who have dared to speak up. “Instead of getting a hearing, they get punished.” This, he said, is “a structure that has failed.” Amen to that (I say as one who has called for doing away with such Special Purpose Districts for a quarter of a century now).
  • Nathan Ballentine noted something that I hadn’t realized. He said none of those present are members of the nominations committee that gets to nominate commission members (who are then appointed by the governor, technically). “The group behind me and others have not been allowed in the process.” (Rep. Jimmy Bales chairs the nominating committee; I’ll try to get the names of the others.)
  • Kirkman Finlay said the commission spent $35,000 of taxpayers’ money paying attorneys to do a study of the commission and its problems — then refused to release the study, and voted 5-2 to ignore its findings.
  • Beth Bernstein said she had an additional beef with the commissioners “as a woman and as a mother of two daughters.” She was speaking of the sexual harassment complaints that the commission has ignored.

More as I have it. I’m working on getting PDFs of the documents released today. If nothing else, I’ll scan them at home tonight…

The assembled media. Second from right is Ron Aiken of Quorum, whose reporting has done much to bring things to this point.

The assembled media. Second from right is Ron Aiken of Quorum, whose reporting has done much to bring things to this point.

Below are pictures of the five commissioners the lawmakers want to resign:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

29 thoughts on “10 of 17 delegation members call for RCRC resignations

  1. John

    I’m sorry, but number 2 made me laugh. “Blatant abuses of nepotism.”
    Think of the nepotism! Who’s looking out for the nepotism?!

    Sorry, I’ve probably graded too many papers. :)

    Reply
  2. Doug Ross

    It’s about time. Now I hope they (and the local media) stay on this until something happens.

    It would be nice to see a family tree of Mr. Brown and show the branches to each of the employees with the same surname and who knows how many other cousins, in-laws, nieces and nephews of both him and any of the board members.

    Reply
  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, since some of our African-American senators — and let’s face it, some of our white neighbors as well — are pleased to see this scandal purely in racial terms, allow me to point out that two of the five problem commissioners are the only two white guys on the commission.

    The two who observers say are doing their jobs, and have stood up to Brown — Thomas Clark and Wilbert Lewis — are black.

    I say this just to make sure we avoid falling into the trap of oversimplification…

    Reply
    1. Mark Stewart

      It’s kinda funny that the Richland County Delegation’s “Executive Director” is James C. Brown. Probably no relation – but would be hilarious is there is one…

      Reply
      1. Kathryn Fenner

        One of the employees speaking out against the management is Zenethia Brown, whom I got to know when she was one of the few competent staffers in the city’s Community Development Department. I expect that she is no relation, or at least not close enough to matter?
        I got into a lengthy exchange with an amateur genealogist from my hometown, Aiken. He kept thinking we were related, since he has Braun relatives in Aiken. I kept telling him that the name was changed to Braun when my great-grandfather and great-grandmother landed in 1890 and went to Buffalo, well after the local Germans and Swiss settled here in SC. I know all my Braun relatives.
        Six degrees of separation doesn’t mean that you are related to Jon Stewart or Patrick Stewart….

        Reply
        1. Mark Stewart

          Of course you are right.

          However, with Darrell Jackson involved, one just never knows where things will lead; or the terrain that’s been trod.

          Reply
          1. Kathryn Fenner

            Nepotism in and of itself isn’t inherently bad–it’s hiring incompetent or corrupt people regardless of how related they are to you.
            I think Ivanka Trump and her husband probably give Donald decent advice. The boys, not so much. Who knows?

            Reply
            1. Harry Harris

              Yes, nepotism is inherently bad. It’s more tolerable it involves one’s own private company, but it has no place in public agencies. How can you properly supervise or evaluate a close relative? How can a person working with or under a close relative of the boss get a fair hearing for a complaint or grievance? If the kinsman is worthy of hiring, he or she can get a job elsewhere. I’ve seen it up close, and it’s ugly – not involving incompetence, but favoritism, power grabs, and undue influence.

              Reply
              1. Doug Ross

                ” It’s more tolerable it involves one’s own private company, but it has no place in public agencies. ”

                It’s more than “more tolerable” in a privately owned company. It’s 100% okay.

                And I’m okay with, for example, a husband and wife working as employees in the same school as long as neither has any supervisory role over the other (save that for home). In my middle school a long time ago, we had three couples who were teachers. We’d go from Mrs. Honen teaching English to Mr. Honen teaching science back to back.

                Reply
                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  I don’t think I’d go to “100% okay.”

                  It’s less bad in a lot of circumstances because you’re not dealing with the same public trust.

                  But you can still have obligations to others, and you could be letting them down by hiring relatives who are not the best candidates. If you have partners, or if you are publicly traded, you owe it to those people to hire the very best candidates and avoid conflicts that could cause you to make decisions not in the best interests of the company.

                  You also have obligations to the people you do business with. Especially if you run a very large business with networks of suppliers and vendors. If nepotism leads to you running the business into the ground so that you go into bankruptcy and don’t fully pay those you owe, you could hurt a lot of people.

                  You know, like Trump…

                2. Doug Ross

                  Nope. Don’t agree at all. The guy who owns the company can do whatever he wants. There are no “obligations” to anyone aside from contracts and debts. We’re talking about a private company, not public.

                  Trump could sell off everything he owns tomorrow and fire everyone. That’s his right as the owner. If his kids are incompetent, he suffers.

                  If you had your own company, would you hire any of your children? I did.

                3. Brad Warthen Post author

                  So basically, if you have a partner — someone who is depending on the success of your company every bit as much as you — and you make a personnel decision that harms the company, you’re saying that you haven’t wronged your partner in any way.

                  What one has a legal right to do and what is right are different things.

                4. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Oh, and whether I hired one of my children would depend on a number of factors — among them my judgment of whether the job was a good thing for that child. I wouldn’t want to set him or her up to fail.

                  It’s an adjustment for me even to think about it, because of all those years as a newspaper editor, working under ethical rules as stringent as those we apply to government, if not more so.

                  Cindi touched on this in a recent column — how you get it ingrained in you that practices that are routine for business people are wrong if you’re a journalist…

                5. Doug Ross

                  A true partner would have a legal right to question any hiring.

                  Any children / relative of any publishers you worked for ever find a summer job in the company?

                6. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Not really. There was that girl I mentioned who worked with us copy boys at The Commercial Appeal. I remember hearing that her Dad knew somebody, like the executive editor or somebody.

                  The closest thing to what you’re talking about was the newspaper’s relationship with the Kisbers at The Jackson (TN) Sun. Jonas Kisber’s department store was our biggest advertiser, his wife was our “society” columnist, and their son worked as a photo intern in the summers.

                  But they were good at their jobs. No one in town was better connected to local “society,” and the son was really smart and a pretty good shooter.

                  I’ll tell you when the Kisber connection got REALLY awkward…

                  Sometime after college, the son, Matt, ran for the legislature. He had fairly strong opposition from a guy who was not as connected. This put us in a tough spot in terms of the endorsement. Personally, I thought Matt would be the better representative, but I knew all the suspicious cynics (all the Dougs!) in town would say it’s because of his family being our biggest advertiser, etc.

                  But I thought we should do it anyway, and just tough it out.

                  Our managing editor, on the other hand, insisted we endorse the other guy, who was older, a family man, and someone who had the experience of working for a living. (That was his reasoning, near as I recall.)

                  I thought that was wrongheaded, but we endorsed the other guy anyway.

                  The voters agreed with me; Matt won the election. And there was this huge awkwardness in our relationship with the Kisbers. Which was doubly awkward for me, because I agreed that Matt was the better candidate.

                  I suppose we could have declined to endorse, citing the relationship. But I think that would have been silly and priggish. I believe in being frank, aboveboard, and confronting issues like that head-on, and let the readers decide whether they accept the argument…

                7. Brad Warthen Post author

                  By the way…

                  Matt Kisber had a 20-year career in the legislature, and was credited with a lot of accomplishments, including creating a workers compensation fraud unit at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. He later served as top economic development guy under Gov. Phil Bredeson.

                  And guess what! Wikipedia mentions his working as a photog at the paper, under “Early Life and Education.”

                  The guy who lost to him later became mayor of Jackson, after I left town.

                  By the way, that 1982 election was perhaps the most stressful I ever experienced. I developed my ulcer that fall (although it was as much from taking aspirin as from stress). I particularly remember having dry heaves in the men’s room at the paper about 3 a.m. on election night — the result of going a bunch of hours (my day had probably started at 7 the previous morning, and would continue until about noon the day after) working without anything to eat. (I had a thermos of Bean with Bacon soup with me, and when things calmed down enough and I ate it, I felt better. Weird the stuff you remember…)

                  Although this wasn’t the stressful part for me, that election was noted for several candidates across the country “going negative,” which was still considered a risky thing to do — and one of the most noted such cases was in Tennessee, between Robin Beard and Jim Sasser.

                  THAT, I actually enjoyed as a spectator — I didn’t wring my hands so much about partisanship then, but then, the bad stuff was just getting started — and besides, Beard had a comeuppance for his negativity:

                  Beard did not run for a sixth term in the 1982 elections, opting instead to run for the Republican nomination to oppose freshman Democratic Senator Jim Sasser. While Beard won the primary, he was a heavy underdog against Sasser from the beginning (even though Ronald Reagan had carried Tennessee two years before), and his television ads didn’t help the cause. In one of the advertisements, Sasser was likened to a then-popular toy mouse which was wound up and started performing back flips, emphasizing Sasser’s “flip flop” record according to Beard; in another, a fatigue-wearing Fidel Castro look-alike lit his cigar with what appeared to be American money, saying, “Gracias, Señor Sasser!” In the end, Beard lost in a massive 20-point landslide. This was a considerable embarrassment to the Tennessee GOP, especially considering that Republican Governor Lamar Alexander was handily reelected. The Republicans would not win another statewide race until 1994, when they captured the governorship and both Senate seats….

                  Rolling Stone called the Castro ad “Best Down-and-Dirty TV Commercial” of the year.

                  That Halloween, I went to the newspaper party (always a highlight of the year at that paper) as Fidel Castro. I had a dark beard at the time, which I grew out especially for Halloween. I got some fatigues from an Army surplus story, and went around the party with a cigar in my mouth, lighting play money on fire and saying to everyone, “Gracias, Señor Sasser!”

                  It was a stressful time, but at that age, there was always time for fun…

                8. Doug Ross

                  As for my hiring of my own kids, it was to give them experience and training that they could then legitimately put on a resume to find another job. Did it for both of my sons after they graduated college and it turned out very well.

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          What was it before Braun?

          One of these days I’m going to share with y’all my recent adventures on my family tree. Freaky stuff.

          Anybody watch “Vikings” on the History channel? You know the main character, Ragnar Lothbrok? Direct ancestor. If he existed…

          Reply
          1. Kathryn Fenner

            Brodnitzki

            There were no Polish names marrying in for three hundred plus years, only German ones. That was the lone Catholic branch of the family, from Pomerania, east of Berlin, a Protestant area of Germany, and the guess is that the minority Germans who were Catholic hung out with enough Catholic Poles to intermarry a bit. My cousin, who lived his whole life in German neighborhoods Buffalo, where the bad thing you could rumor about someone was that they were really *Polish* joked that he felt like he lost 15 IQ points when they discovered this.

            My Dad’s Polish American friend says that the spelling indicates a very Germanized family. Indeed. My dad was actually cast to play a Nazi in an industrial film. People in Argentina would come up to him and speak German.

            Reply
  4. Susan Brill

    Thanks, Brad. I don’t mind being in the audience…better way to listen and learn. I was a radio news reporter years ago and enjoy the breaking news as you must.

    Reply
  5. Doug Ross

    The good thing about the way they presented the case for the resignations is that it laid the groundwork for Nikki Haley to remove them all from office. From Ron Aiken’s Quorum:

    “When asked what those options were lawmakers demurred, but since the power to remove the board rests entirely with Gov. Nikki Haley, it would take her involvement in removing them. Wednesday’s press conference seemed designed to give her the ammunition she would need. Section 1-3-240 of the South Carolina Code of Laws allows the governor to remove any officer of the county or state “either with or without the advice and consent of the Senate; who is guilty of malfeasance, misfeasance, incompetency, absenteeism, conflicts of interest, misconduct, persistent neglect of duty in office, or incapacity… .””

    http://quorumcolumbia.org/2016/08/31/lawmakers-vow-remove-recreation-commissioner/

    Nikki is in a safe place now politically that any backlash would be minimal and the positive response would likely outweigh any phony racism charges.

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I hope that’s right.

      Ron asked “what’s next,” and I only half-heard the answer as I was moving about the room, angling for a picture or some such. Then I sort of embarrassed myself by asking it again, but a different way. I asked James why he spoke as if it were a foregone conclusion that the commissioners would be gone whether they went voluntarily or not. I asked what the mechanism would be for removing them. James sort of sidestepped that.

      I suppose he didn’t want to tip their hand in that venue; I don’t know. I need to do some more discreet questioning of the participants to get a better grasp on what they’re thinking…

      Reply
      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        We all have things we’re good at and things we’re bad at. The things I’m worst at as a journalist:

        1. Fast reading. I’m a slow, deliberate reader. (But I have great retention.)

        2. Worse, I’m a slow note-taker. Consequently, you seldom see long quotes from me. (On the upside, I’m very good at paraphrasing, and sources tend to say I represent what they said very well.)

        3. My attention wanders. This is the worst, the most embarrassing. Here’s one way that happens — I’ll be interviewing someone, and I’ll be paying close attention to what he says, and he’ll say something particularly interesting to me, and my mind will go off on a tangent thinking hard about what he just said, and I’ll miss the next few things that are said.

        And then, I’ll ask a question that will reveal that I had not been paying attention. And everybody looks at me like, “What the hell’s wrong with you?”

        They say there’s no such thing as a dumb question, but you can really look like an idiot when you ask a question that the person just answered while you were woolgathering — even if it was relevant woolgathering, pondering what had just been discussed.

        My deafness in one ear the last few years has just exacerbated the problem. Even when I’m paying attention, I can miss things — which is kind of what happened yesterday. And the only thing I can do is embarrass myself by asking the question anyway.

        Stupid questions are my way of compensating for the fact that I know I miss things. But it’s really embarrassing…

        Reply
        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Of course, one can resort to recording interviews. But that’s EXTREMELY inefficient, and the news cycle — especially today’s constant state of deadline — doesn’t really allow you time for listening to something AGAIN. You really need to catch it the first time, for many reasons, not least the fact that, if you have a question about what is said, the source is still standing in front of you…

          Reply
          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            All of this ties into why I’m a better editor than reporter. When you’re editing, it’s all right there in front of you. It’s not slippery; it can’t get away from you. It’s way easier to focus like a laser on a document. And if your attention wanders, you just read the sentence again.

            And it’s easy to see what’s missing, so you can give the reporter hell for missing something that, truth be told, you might have missed yourself under the circumstances. But when you’re the omniscient editor, you don’t necessarily have to admit that…

            Reply

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