COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - WIS News 10 has investigated how Richland County officials spend taxpayer money. We reviewed online records of elected officials and their use of county-issued credit cards, called a Purchasing Card.
One council member charged thousands of dollars in rental car fees. Another made multiple purchases at gas stations on the same day.
An internal investigation is underway to examine the P-Card process.
Leonardo Brown was selected as Richland County Administrator one year ago. He now leads the internal investigation in search of answers on how the county monitors P-card users’ spending and approval process.
“Those types of questions are the type of questions I’m going to be looking at our policy and practices to find out how closely aligned our practices are with the policy,” said Brown.
According to the Finance Department, the current policy for council members who choose to utilize county-issued Purchasing Cards for government-related business, approve their own expenditures.
P-Card spending is capped at $5,000 per month for council members.
Elected officials’ P-card charges from June 2019 to May 2020 are available on the county website. Brown says he’d like to see greater transparency and explanation of spending, along with the financial charges.
“Short answer is yes,” said Brown. “It would be useful and necessary -- beyond just purely, is it an eligible expense? If it’s a good expense, did it account for what was needed? How did it benefit it, and what plans do we need to make to address the community needs moving forward utilizing those resources.”
On January 29, 2020, a charge for $4,829 for a rental car from Enterprise was posted to Vice Chair Dalhi Myers’ P-card. The county approved of the cost, which Myers says it should not have.
Myers was unaware of the charge posted to her P-Card until earlier this month. In an email to Mr. Brown, dated June 7 of this year, Myers said in part, “I would like an investigation as to what internal controls allow these payments to persist.”
On June 9, Enterprise refunded $4,425.25 to the P-Card and switched the bulk of the charges to Myers’ personal credit card. She said the original intent of the trip was for an out of town county-related meeting. But, she extended the rental for personal use, and Enterprise failed to charge her own card on file.
“In my practice, when there have been issues with my P-card, I have walked into the office myself,” said Myers. “I have spoken with those in charge; This concerns me, is this OK? If they said yes, I’ve moved on. When they said this might look like a problem, I erred on the side of caution.”
An example was on a trip to Greece in 2019, where she expensed $846.99 to her P-Card. She paid the full sum back to the county shortly upon her return, after consulting with the then-assistant county administrator, Sandra Yudice. The payment to the county was received on March 14.
Myers says she used the card after connecting with Athens, Greece leaders. She extended the trip for a day to learn more about sewer systems and its functionality.
“At that point, I was under fire in my community, and people were thinking that a sewer system had to disrupt everything,” said Myers. “Could be no traditions. No nothing. If you bring in a sewer system, we’re no longer rural. What country do you know on Earth, or what city is older with more important and impressive ruins and historical architecture than Athens? So, I roamed around with them to get ideas.”
Every month the Procurement Department conducts an audit of all county expenses. The County Administrator's office may also review all council member transactions.
Very few council member purchases were flagged this year, the Finance Department tells WIS-TV. District 7 representative, Gwendolyn Kennedy, was asked and did repay some gasoline purchases.
On July 8, she made three purchases at Shell Oil gas stations. The department prefers cardholders to submit mileage for reimbursement for car travel. It’s not a mandate, however.
In financial transaction statements for 2020, Kennedy spent $1,001 on gas and food only. Only five of her purchases were above $30.
The Finance Department explains a regular employee using a P-card would be flagged for such smaller food purchases, but not a council member because they could be performing county-related business, holding meetings, or hosting events. Kennedy did not respond to WIS for comment on her purchasing history.
Brown says the subject of his investigation is not an individual council member, but the P-Card process itself.
"Begin the process of looking at what we do and how we do it to determine what areas we need to address immediately," said Brown. "If there's anything that comes up beyond that, I'll involve the appropriate people."
Brown, in a statement, said, “The status of my investigation into the P-Card process is currently ongoing. I am not aware of all of the spending/charges made by any individual Council member.”