Irmo’s mayor signed a NDA for answers on where $250k of taxpayer money went, didn’t get them

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Published: Jan. 18, 2022 at 11:05 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 18, 2022 at 11:37 PM EST
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IRMO, S.C. (WIS) - Irmo’s mayor said he does not know how $250,000 of taxpayer money has been spent and two fellow councilmembers haven’t told him.

The conflict dates back to May 2020, when Mayor Barry Walker and Irmo Town Council voted to apply to establish the Irmo Future Growth Corporation (IFGC).

The town’s copy of the bylaws lay out the how the non-profit was to facilitate loans to businesses in need. It also mandated two councilmembers sit on its board.

Those seats are currently filled by Councilmembers Bill Danielson and Erik Sickinger.

In 2021, the council voted to provide the IFGC with two $125,000 checks for the program.

It’s unclear when and it’s unclear why, but the IFGC’s board transitioned the loan program to a grant program.

Walker told WIS the transition may have been the result of a lack of loan applications, and the issue was discussed in council workshops. Town council minutes provided to WIS do not reflect any vote on transitioning the program to a grant.

At Tuesday night’s council meeting, Walker said he signed a non-disclosure agreement to receive information from the non-profit board (which include the two council colleagues) for information on what companies received funds and how much.

He said he never received it. The meeting proceeded to escalate with tense exchanges, an allegation that executive session protocol was broken, and an argument over under what circumstances the NDA was signed.

Danielson had previously publicly stated the information is being withheld from the public to protect the privacy of the companies and individuals who received funding.

Sickinger echoed that reasoning on Tuesday.

Walker addressed Danielson and Sickinger in a discussion portion of the meeting.

“I still haven’t gotten it, so you know, if you’re not prepared to give it to me that’s fine. I will take it to the next step, but again please, I would beg you to release that information to me, if not to whoever else has asked for it,” he said.

Walker previously told WIS that asking SLED to intervene is not off the table.

Sickinger responded to Walker by questioning him about where the discussion of the NDA occurred, ultimately telling Walker he violated the confidentiality of executive session.

“If we watch every single minute of council video, you will see that is not on the record,” he said. He later stated:

“That was in executive session and so what you just did was talked about something that happened in executive session on the open floor.”Sickinger apologized to the mayor that he was not given the information and said he was under the impression the mayor had refused sign it.

“If you had come to me or emailed me and asked for that information and said you had signed the NDA, I would have provided to you,” he said.

Danielson said the NDA is in the “Irmo Future Growth File.”

He told WIS he “forgot” to provide Walker with the information, but Walker had not brought up the issue until the meeting.

Sickinger said “no one is calling into question” providing Walker the information, and said he looks forward to the debate over the issue ending.

After Walker asked for elaboration, Sickinger said that end would be determined by how the IFGC votes.

“Hopefully it will be put to bed very soon,” he said.

WIS has submitted a Freedom of Information request for the NDA agreement.

The exchange comes after a September 2021 meeting where Walker asked Town Administrator Courtney Dennis to pursue a report from the IFGC on what companies received grants and how much.

At the time, Danielson said “that’s not going to happen” citing the separation of the non-profit from the town and privacy concerns.

The IFGC’s webpage was, until recently, attached to the town’s webpage. It’s unclear when it was taken down.

In an interview earlier in January, Walker went back and forth between expressing trust and doubt in Danielson and Sickinger, at one point calling their lack of disclosure and potential changing of the bylaws “suspicious.”

However, he also stated:

“I don’t have any doubt in my mind, that every bit of whatever they spent to date, whatever that magic number is has gone directly to Irmo businesses directly for Irmo relief. I don’t have any doubt in that at all. What I’m asking is who got it and how much did they get,” he said.

WIS attempted to arrange interviews prior to Tuesday’s meeting with both Danielson and Sickinger.

WIS and Danielson were unable to successfully schedule an interview time.

Sickinger declined an interview until the IFGC completed WIS’s FOIA requests.

WIS submitted a freedom of information requests with the Town of Irmo and the IFGC about where the money went.

The IFGC has not yet produced documents in relation to the FOIA’s. However, the town did produce a redacted list of businesses which have received funding from August 2021.

It reflects a list of businesses with the names of the businesses, but the names of the owners redacted.

It does not show how much money each businesses received. Additionally, it’s unclear if it’s a complete and up-to-date list.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Walker also brought forward an ordinance which would “require recipients to submit an Expenditure Accounting Report if awarded any money from the Town of Irmo,” in direct response to the IFGC episode.

It states the report “may be requested at any time by any member of Council, the Mayor, or the Town Administrator.”

Failure to produce the report would disqualify the organization from receiving future funds for a year.

The council passed it unanimously on first reading, with support for the “spirit” of the ordinance.

Danielson said the reporting form needs to be more specific to guarantee detailed results and there needs to be ramifications for failing to do so.

“There’s no teeth in this thing. So if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right and have them provide the general ledger accounting for every dime spent. That’s the only way you can do this and do it legitimately,” he said.

Sickinger did express reservations about the “any time” clause in the ordinance.

“I just don’t want us to give a good charity money and were it a non-profit, or whoever, recipient money and then have, because it turned political, have, members of a future council, not that anyone on this council would do this, but have a future council harass that person,” he said.

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