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Local Government

Ethics laws sketchy

The Columbia Star of Columbia, South Carolina

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Columbia City Council Member Tameika Isaac Devine ran for office and won in April 2006. She's up for re-election this coming April. Her parents, Henry and Veronica Isaac, presumably contributed to her 2006 campaign. And as parents they were probably among the early supporters.

The problem for this reporter is the S.C. Ethics Commission and its online campaign finance reporting. It didn't start until 2008, so campaign contributions from the previous two years must be researched from hard copy on the premises at the commission's address on the west side of Arsenal Hill.

The Ethics Reform Act, Section 8-13-1342, provides that "No person who has been awarded a contract with...a municipality... other than contracts awarded through competitive bidding practice, may make a contribution after the awarding of the contract..." Further, it states that "No public official...may solicit campaign contributions or investments in exchange for the prior award of a contract of the promise of a contract..." In order for the public official to be in violation of this section, the public official must have solicited the campaign contribution in return for the contract award.

But that's for a contribution before the awarding of the contract without price competition. The heat is on the public official apparently peddling influence.

For the contribution after the awarding of the contract without price competition, the heat is on the contributor. The contribution appears to be a payback.

In the recent case with council member Devine, her mother was the beneficiary of funds borrowed from the City of Columbia - $280,000, in fact - for the purchase of a downtown house. The house was listed for $405,000 and the sale price was $325,000, or $68.36 per square foot. In an article in The Columbia Star on September 11, 2009, both of Devine's parents, Henry and Veronica Isaac, were the contributors of the story behind their renovation of the historic house at 1419 Richland Street. Their borrowed funds from the city actually came from an empowerment zone source.

The article describes the source of their loaned funds:

"With assistance from a loan from the Sumter-Columbia Empowerment Zone and the Benedict-Allen Community Development Corporation, Henry and Veronica were able to make a dream come true and accomplish one of their long-term goals."

Further, the article describes the empower-ment zone:

"The Sumter-Columbia Empowerment Zone over the last two years has made 19 loans totaling over $3.65 million. The program objectives are job creation and expansion. (Italics added.) Loans are available for property acquisition, working capital, and leasehold improvements."

In the "TITLE TO REAL ESTATE" document, dated April 16, 2009, Veronica M. Isaac is identified as the Grantee, the new owner.

Presently, the house is the office for daughter Tameika Isaac Devine's law firm, Jabber & Isaac PA, which sets up a challenge to meet the empowerment zone's program objectives of job creation and expansion. The law firm moved its people and furnishings from one downtown office to another. Much to her credit, Veronica Isaac appears to agree, and she recently declared publicly she intends to return the city's $280,000.

Speaking of returning money, the question lingers: Did Devine's mother contribute to her 2006 campaign for city council? If so, a violation of Section 8-13-1342 is suggested. A thorough check at the Ethics Commission's hard files for Devine's campaign finance records for 2006, 2007, and part of 2008 could answer the question.

The Ethics Commission says it does not investigate without a formal complaint, and the likelihood of a formal complaint in this instance of ignorance and family ties is hard to imagine.

Still, a May 2006 search of Devine's campaign contributions disclosed a personal $850 contribution from Columbia PR man Marvin Chernoff, who also personally organized the cultural festival around that time for a city-directed fee of $50,000. For the few months leading up to the festival, Chernoff and Mayor Coble were calling the thrown-together festival of mostly previously already-scheduled events as the "most important cultural event in the history of Columbia." For the few months after the festival, no such description was heard. But Chernoff was paid his $50,000, personally-Players in the defunct city-financed, city-developed convention center headquarters hotel deal also surfaced in the May 2006 campaign finances review, but those contributions to Devine came from individuals, not the companies, the firms in on the deal. Under that distinction, the Ethics Commission doesn't care if John Lumpkin personally contributed $1,000 while Joe Edens also gave $1,000 and Dan Avant, $500, even though Lumpkin was the project director at Edens & Avant.

A thorough review of every city council member's campaign finances, including lame duck Mayor Coble, is in order, now that the law is finally beginning to be understood. Of particular interest are the contributions from the companies that were awarded contracts without competitive price bidding. Ask S.C. Attorney General Henry Dargan McMaster what he thinks. After all, the Ethics Commission followed up on him without a formal complaint, just some news article. McMaster gave the money back.

Copyright 2009 The Columbia Star, Columbia, South Carolina. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: October 30, 2009

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