By RON AIKEN
Multiple letters over years spelled out problems with agency, executive director
Before he was slapped with five lawsuits, before the FBI opened an investigation, and before a $35,000+ independent report was ignored by a board whose members he has been accused of bribing, Richland County Recreation Commission executive director James Brown III was the subject of multiple complaints in desperate letters from scared employees to members of Richland County Council and the county’s legislative delegation dating back to 2014, The Nerve has learned.
The letters allege in detail what has since come to light through lawsuits and testimony – charges of sexual harassment, nepotism, improper use of recreation commission personnel and resources and intimidation.
Beyond that, though, and beyond any of the claims by the more than 20 people The Nerve has spoken to in the past month, lies the fact that legislative oversight of the Richland County Recreation has been a disaster despite attempt after attempt after attempt after attempt by employees to seek justice from the only group who truly could deliver it.
For this story, The Nerve emailed all 17 members of the Richland County legislative delegation with one question: “Did you ever receive copies of anonymous Recreation Commission complaints?”
Only one replied.
“It was hit and miss – the letters would come and go,” said Sen. Joel Lourie (D-Richland), one of three delegation members who immediately called for an investigation into the agency following The Nerve’s initial reporting of alleged corruption and intimidation and introduced legislation to turn oversight of the commission to the county.
Lourie said the letters did not make a splash for the simple reason that legislators get flooded with similar claims from all over every day.
“I think it was more a function of a few letters here and there, and like most delegation members we just get bombarded with stuff and you’re never sure what to believe and not to believe.”
“So you’re just not sure, with all the mail we get, what to work on sometimes.”
The four letters The Nerve has obtained copies of date from August and September of 2014 and January and February of 2015.
They’re not the only ones sent.
“We’d get letters (from upset employees) pretty regularly, signed and unsigned,” said Richland County Council vice chairman Greg Pearce. “I did the same thing every time – forwarded them to the legislative delegation.
“Since it is a special purpose district, we have no authority over the Recreation Commission, only the delegation that appoints the board members. Sometimes I wish people would have signed them so I could go find them and see what I could do to help.
“It was obvious things weren’t right there.”
Those concerns also were brought to the Recreation Commission’s Board of Commissioners. When the letters first made the rounds in 2014, the council voted 5-2 to hire attorney Joe McCullogh to conduct an investigation. At the next meeting a month later, two board members – Weston Furgess and George Martin – switched their votes and no investigation occurred.
Even when an investigation finally did take place in April that included hours of testimony against Brown taken by an independent labor attorney, the board deliberated on it for an hour before emerging to give him a 5-2 vote of confidence.
If any employees had been hoping that investigation would produce change, they were mistaken.
“None of us could believe that (vote) happened,” said a Recreation Commission employee still working there who asked not to be identified. “It was like, ‘Wow. That’s it.’ There was nothing that could be done then, and all it did was empower Brown even more.”
In the weeks since The Nerve’s story ran, even Lourie admitted surprise that the delegation as a whole did not support his legislation or calls for action.
“It didn’t have the votes,” Lourie said.
Lourie said the model, as it stands, doesn’t work.
“(There’s a) greater issue about special purpose districts and how they have no real oversight,” Lourie said. “I’ve been thinking a little bit about whether or not we should expand the role of the legislative audit council to include local governments and special purpose districts.
“This would require a whole new level of funding and legislation and unfortunately, it’s too late for this year.”
For now, the FBI is investigating the agency and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott has an open investigation as well, though no timetable is available for either. Sources tell The Nerve it has been suggested to Brown that he resign but he has refused, and no action has been taken by the legislative delegation whatsoever to remove him or the board members identified as allegedly having received bribes and favors from him.
“We’re still here,” the Recreation Commission employee said. “We’re still waiting for someone to do something.”
Reach Aiken at (803) 254-4411 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC.