Campaign contributor to recused councilman gets taxpayer-funded grant

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Published: Feb. 1, 2022 at 7:02 PM EST
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IRMO, S.C. (WIS) - Documents obtained by WIS show an Irmo Town Councilman received a $1,000 campaign contribution from a local restaurant owner. Within days, that owner got a $15,000 taxpayer-funded grant from the non-profit the councilman chairs.

The non-profit is the Irmo Future Growth Corporation (IFGC).

Its board meeting minutes show the Chair, Irmo Town Councilman Bill Danielson, recused himself from the decision to award the grant. The vote for approval was unanimous from the remaining three members.

IFGC records also show Danielson initiated the discussion of Alodia’s Cucina Italiana’s grant application due to the business re-opening.

Both Danielson and restaurant owner Adam Huneau told WIS there was no connection between the political donation to Danielson and the non-profit’s grant for the restaurant.

What is the Irmo Future Growth Corporation?

The Irmo Town Council voted in May 2020 to begin the process of establishing the IFGC.

The by-laws of the IFGC, approved by the board, stated the non-profit’s purpose was to spur economic growth in the area through loans to businesses and other measures. The town council required two council members to sit on the organization’s board.

Those seats are filled by Councilmembers Bill Danielson and Erik Sickinger. The board elected Danielson as its chairman in May 2020.

Danielson said there was a clear need for assistance.

“The phone calls that I received over time would be devastating to you, as they were to me. People in tears, people watching their whole lives blow up. You had to see the impact,” he said.

Both Danielson and Sickinger told WIS the IFGC board changed the program to a grant program after there was no business interest in taking on more loans.

Neither town council minutes nor IFGC board minutes provided to WIS show either body taking action to formally make the change.

Danielson said the board came to the conclusion the transition to the grant program was needed. He said there was no formal action to make the change.

“It was conversations that morphed in that direction over a period of time,” he said.

A June 9-10, 2021 email chain obtained by WIS through a records request shows Danielson and Irmo Mayor Barry Walker giving their approval of a new IFGC grant application presented by the Irmo town administration.

In 2021, the town council approved two $125,000 checks to fund the IFGC’s mission. They were sent to the IFGC in April and July.

The IFGC register shows checks began going out on August 4, 2021.

On August 30, 2021, IFGC documents show Danielson sent an email from the IFGC email address wrote to other board members:

FYI, just a reminder to not share this information outside of our board. The amounts are confidential and most of the recipients do not want that public. The list being shared is fine.

Sickinger and board member Beach Loveland responded expressing agreement.

Danielson and Sickinger told WIS businesses requested the amount of money awarded be kept private.

“So we respected that, I live my entire life, my entire business life in the world of confidentiality. Ok? That’s all I do. I’ve got everything on all these people, social, I live in that world. So when someone asks me to not give that information out, I agree to,” Danielson said.

In September 2021, Mayor Walker asked Town Administrator Courtney Dennis to pursue a report from the IFGC on what companies have received grants and how much.

Danielson responded by stating “that’s not going to happen” and cited the separation of the non-profit from the town and privacy concerns.

In a January interview, Sickinger said he was “naive” and did not expect the disclosure of the funds to be a “significant issue.”He said he believed there was transparency. An October 2021 Post & Courier article did reflect a list of businesses but did not show the amounts.

“Now looking back and hearing some of the questions, I think part of that is due to insinuation by people who may be particularly politically motivated, but now hearing some of those questions, sure I can understand why people would want to see everything and anything that they should be able to see,” Sickinger said.

The IFGC distributed the grants to businesses from August until November 2021. Danielson said a “multitude of issues” were weighed in deciding which companies received grants and how much.

He said the intent of the grants was to help companies negatively impacted by the pandemic. Danielson said balance sheets, tax returns, and profit/loss statements were studied.

“How long have they been in Irmo and who are they, right? What’s their impact in this community? What has happened to their financials?” Danielson said.

Sickinger said the cost of rent for the businesses was also a factor in the size of the grant.

“I said let’s do something where we know that these businesses can stay open,” Sickinger said.

In a January 2022 council meeting, Walker revealed he signed a non-disclosure agreement to get the accounting information from Sickinger and Danielson.

However, he said he had not received the information and questioned them publicly about it.

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

Both Danielson and Sickinger said Walker said he was in violation of the executive session.

WIS submitted a Freedom of Information request for the agreement. The IFGC has not yet provided it.

Where the money went

On Monday, the IFGC board published a press release breaking down which businesses received how much in grant funds.

RELATED | Irmo Non-profit releases where $250k of taxpayer money went after town council clashes

The disclosure came after WIS obtained an email between Danielson and Walker in the aftermath of the January meeting.

Danielson sent Walker a ledger for the IFGC, along with scans checks of the checks the IFGC made out to businesses, LLC’s and individuals.

It also reflects $1,300 of deposits and expenditures Danielson said the IFGC undertook on behalf of the Friarsgate skate park.

He wrote to WIS in an email: The board of directors of IFGC agreed to act as a pass through for the Friarsgate Skatepark to give them more credibility when applying for private, state and local grants. They raised $1,300 which we deposited into our account. These two checks represent their own money going to expenses for their assisting the Irmo Youth Zone and Dr. Alonzo Johnson with new skateboards, ramps and safety equipment.

Here are the records:

Checks were signed to businesses, LLC’s and individuals. WIS asked if there was a follow-up mechanism with individuals on how the money was spent.

Danielson said there was none, but the IFGC based their decisions on the knowledge of the applicants and their impact on the town.

“That was intentional. It was intentional which is why we went to the grants. We didn’t want them to have to feel like they had to tell me ‘oh yeah I spent $8,000 on payroll this week. I spent $3,000 on rent.’ A lot of these people had already poured their guts and their money into these businesses,” he said.

“I would say the bulk of them probably replenished their savings account or their MMA, money market account, whatever it may be of money they’ve put in. Some of them absolutely had to pay their payroll, their rent, and those types of things.”

Alodia’s timeline

WIS cross-referenced the recipients of the checks with publicly disclosed campaign contributors to Danielson and Sickinger’s campaigns.

Huneau and his restaurant Alodia’s were present on Danielson’s campaign contribution list and received a $15,000 grant from the IFGC.

Alodia’s made a $500 contribution to Danielson’s campaign on Feb. 3, 2020.

It’s unclear when Alodia’s application was submitted.

However, the IFGC email forwarded emails Huneau sent on Sept. 29 and 30, 2021 containing financial documents and an “Irmo Grant Form.”

In his interview with WIS, Danielson said he controls the IFGC email.

Huneau reported a loss of $540,000 in the application.

He told WIS his Irmo location closed in May 2021 and the Alodia’s Facebook page shows it re-opening on October 19, 2021.

With our Irmo location opening back up tomorrow, we’d love to know what your most excited for! Comment 👇 what you are most looking forward to!

Posted by Alodia's Cucina Italiana on Monday, October 18, 2021

A Nov. 8, 2021 email chain provided to WIS by the IFGC shows board member and Greater Irmo Chamber of Commerce CEO Kerry Powers bringing up Alodia’s application after speaking with Danielson as a result of the re-opening.

“I was merely passing that information on to [the board],” Danielson told WIS.

Powers did not return a request for comment.

The email also states Danielson would recuse himself from the decision.

Huneau contributed $1,000 to Danielson’s campaign on Nov. 9, 2021.

The IFGC cut a check for $15,000 to Alodia’s on Nov. 15, 2021.

Minutes from Nov. 15, 2021, showed Danielson recused himself from the meeting while Sickinger and the two other board members present approved the grant for Alodia’s.

“The money was not tied to anything. The money, his contribution to me, I did not have to say to him, ‘I’m not taking this contribution, because you’re going to get a grant,’” Danielson said.

“What you’re saying to me is anybody who contributes to me would automatically not be included to get a grant. That’s, there’s nothing that makes any sense in my mind for. So, no I don’t think, it’s got nothing to do with that.”

Sickinger said the Alodia’s is a “really significant entity in town” and an example of the kinds of businesses the IFGC was looking to help.

“I would have expected and sought out a grant application from them, regardless as to whether or not there was a connection between Bill and the owner and further, I mean to Bill’s credit, he works really hard to ensure if there’s any kind of conflict he stays out of it,” he said.

Huneau said he learned about the IFGC through “the paper” but did not know Danielson was the chair of its board.

He described their relationship as “friendly.”

He said he filed an application after his Irmo location had to close.

“We had to close it. We had zero sales. It was awful,” he said.

He said Danielson did communicate to him after the fact that he had been approved.

Huneau said he has long supported Danielson because their views are aligned, and he never expected his political contributions would gain him any advantage in the grant process. He also noted that numerous members of the board voted for the grant, while Danielson recused himself.

He said the $15,000 ultimately went to staff payroll and vendors.

“It’s helped us tremendously. I’m very grateful,” he said.

In a subsequent email exchange, WIS asked how Huneau was in a position to make political donations if he had lost $540,000.

He responded:

By the support of our amazing community that kept visiting the Lexington Alodia’s and we also reopened Irmo in October.

He added this regarding the support he received from the majority of the council:

Furthermore I believe they approved it because we needed it, after having been shut down for almost half a year. I would like to think they discussed it and realized how we have contributed to our community from day one, and operate with integrity and honor, and do our best to live that way in our personal lives as well. We aren’t perfect but we try to be a good steward to our community, employees, and family. We don’t seek recognition for any of the things we do to help out in the community. We do it because we care and help when we can.

I am not ashamed of either of my donations to Bill’ campaign or of Irmo councils decision to help our small business.

Danielson said he also recused himself from the Linc, Inc. and the Anytime Fitness grant decisions as a result of his business ties with those organizations.

Board minutes provided to WIS support he did recuse himself.

Linc, Inc. received $25,0000 and Anytime Fitness received $15,000.

“I understand the optics of the issue you asked me about, Alodia’s, but an honest company, who wants to donate to my campaign, who wants to keep me moving, keep me going, I would say no you can’t do that,” Danielson said.

Danielson said Huneau did not request withholding information on how much was received.

The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office and the State Ethics Commission declined requests for interviews.

The future of the IFGC

It’s unclear what the Irmo Future Growth Corporation will do with the remaining $36,777.01.

Danielson and Sickinger said the IFGC stopped taking grant applications in part due to the scrutiny of the process.

Sickinger said the IFGC will now be looking at other ways to use the money to help the town. He said the IFGC will likely look to draw future funding from the private sector for projects.

“Things that people either see everyday in their drive to work or as they’re at work that don’t look good or ugly or areas in some neighborhoods that maybe have a existing broken down location that used to be an old business or something, working with the community and community leaders to fix that up and make it beautiful,” he said.

The IFGC board passed an amendment to its by-laws in December removing the Town of Irmo’s power to declare members of its board.

Danielson and Sickinger said the board may move to make elected officials on the board non-voting members once it’s more established.

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