Lexington-Richland 5 releases new audit on Piney Woods construction, ethics complaints
IRMO, S.C. (WIS) - Lexington-Richland School District 5 released a procurement audit that details a slew of instances of overspending and improper oversight.
The audit covers spending from July 1, 2016, through June 30, 2021, and focuses on procurement for the construction of Piney Woods Elementary School, which was built between 2019 to 2021.
The report also details ethics complaints and current and former board members.
It was conducted by Jaramillo Accounting Group.
The construction of Piney Woods raised questions from the public and the school board on its timeline and quality after it went over the $30 million authorized for it, and potential conflicts of interest were discovered.
Lexington-Richland 5 Board Chair Jan Hammond said in an interview Wednesday the main reason she and other board officers pushed for this audit is to ease the minds of voters in the district, and ensure that if any past board leadership or superintendents engaged in wasteful spending or lack of proper oversight, it would be corrected.
“I want this fixed,” Hammond said. “I want the people to believe this audit cleans up anything that we need to and that these same mistakes, that’s my goal, will never be made again.”
The audit examines spending before current Superintendent Dr. Akil Ross led the district, and before the current board officers were in place.
The current board officers are Hammond, Board Vice Chair Ken Loveless, and Secretary Nikki Gardner.
Some board members were in office during the time of the audit, though.
Hammond said she had been hoping to clean up accountability in the district for several years and have it perform such an audit, but prior board officers, which set the agenda, rejected her requests.
“I feel like I have been a leader in cleaning up the accountability issue that I saw firsthand as a board member under leadership that never gave me a voice,” she said.
The audit states Hammond and former board members, including Ed White and Robert Gantt, received what may be illegal campaign contributions from a contractor, Contract Construction Inc. (CCI), and an architect working on the Piney Woods Elementary project.
In the section titled, “Procurement of Architectural Design Services Contracts,” violations related to the procurements of Quackenbush Architects and Planner were outlined.
Quackenbush was given the contract for Chapin Middle School (CMS) under the 2008 bond referendum.
The report states: “When the District decided to build the third wing, the CMS addition, then Superintendent Heffner determined a sole source award to Quackenbush on September 23, 2016. However, this was a violation of the District’s Procurement Code.”
The report also says Doug Quackenbush made contributions Board candidate and states: “It appears the contributions after the CMS Addition project after July 19, 2018, may be illegal, as the law prohibits a contractor from making a campaign contribution to an “official [who] was in a position to act on the contract’s award.”
“I’ve never had more than like $100 from any one person,” Hammond said. “The ones they did business with got more money. I’m sure they gave me $100 just to look like I’m for everybody, but all of that makes me suspect. That’s just me as a board member.”
Additionally, it outlines policy violations that occurred during the construction of Piney Woods.
It also states that the district violated the law when it signed the contract to purchase land on Amicks Ferry for the new school because the decision was made in an executive session.
When asked about this, Hammond said she was not aware of the decision until it came up for a vote.
Hammond also voted against that land purchase, she said.
“When you’re just a person that’s not a lawyer, and I’m a teacher and I’m in a meeting and I say, ‘I don’t think y’all have done this right, I didn’t know about this, and now you’re going to bring it to a vote in public,’ they had lawyers to tell me they’d done everything that we do. ‘You’re not a lawyer, Jan. I mean we’ve handled this exactly the way policy says.’”
The Phase II report states in its conclusions, “District procurement must be free from bias, undue influence, conflicts of interest, personal/family self-interest, etc.”
The report also mentions resolved ethics complaints against Hammond, and a pending complaint against Loveless.
The complaint alleges that Loveless should not have asked questions about or done a site visit with other board members during the construction of Piney Woods elementary because his own company, Loveless Commercial Contracting, Inc., was working with the Contract Construction Inc., the company that built Piney Woods, on another project.
The audit stated: “Mr. Loveless sought advice from the South Carolina Ethics Commission (SCEC) regarding his contract issue on September 21, 2020. While they did not find his contract with CCI a violation, it was not prohibited, they did state he should recuse himself regarding CCI matters. The opinion quotes the law which states that no public official may make, participate in making, or in any way attempt to use his office to influence a governmental decision involving the matter with which he has a financial relationship.”
Loveless told WIS today he expects to be exonerated of all allegations.
Loveless had requested that S.C. Ethics Commission rule on the complaint at a hearing next month.
The Ethics Commission denied that request, saying it was too close to when he will be on the ballot for re-election on November 8.
WIS obtained a copy of the Ethics Commission’s order denying Loveless’ request to reschedule. It states that state law requires “action on a complaint filed against a candidate which was received more than fifty days before the election but which cannot be disposed of or dismissed by the commission at least thirty days before the election must be postponed until after the election.”
The hearing on that complaint is scheduled for February 16, 2023.
Statement from Board Chair Jan Hammond:
“The purpose of this audit is to ensure confidence and trust with the taxpayers of District Five. Being accountable and transparent is vital to moving forward.”
“School Board members are called trustees for a reason. We have two major responsibilities, to hire the superintendent and to oversee the spending of millions of dollars. I would like to remind the public and the media of the time period of this audit report. I want to make it clear this audit covers a period of time before Dr. Ross became superintendent and a period of time in which no current board members served as officers. Let me explain why that is relevant. Board Officers, by policy, set the agenda items. Until this newly elected Board of 2020 took office, no former board officers had seen a need for a procurement audit.”
“I can truthfully say I have received numerous requests over the past few years, especially following the 2008 Bond Referendum of 2008 to conduct a procurement audit. However, before becoming chair, my requests were ignored. Now with new officers, Mr. Loveless and Mrs. Gardner, this audit has been brought before the Board.”
“Our goal is to provide sound procurement policies and ensure school board members and the superintendent see that our policies are followed.”
“The people deserve to know if past board members and superintendents were as vigilant and accountable in their oversight of taxpayer dollars as they should have been. Those critics claim everything in the past was done right, and there is no need for improvement. And for that, I say, there is always room for improvement where the education of our students is concerned. These economic times demand accountability. I’m proud to report this current Board has already made needed policy changes. My hope has always been for this audit to ease the mind of voters in District 5, and ensure them that if past Board leadership and superintendents engaged in wasteful spending or a lack of proper oversite, it will be corrected. This audit belongs to the people. You create public opinion based on the facts.”
“This Board has an obligation and a duty to hear the findings of this audit and turn over any findings to the proper state entities in which conclusions can be made by the proper authorities. It is my prayer and hope that this audit will allow us to move forward with an atmosphere of renewed trust and accountability. We must learn from any mistakes and ensure they are never repeated.”
Loveless also released a statement in reaction to the audit release, which reads: “I pushed for this audit because it’s been clear for some time that there have been serious problems with our construction practices. “Unfortunately, when I and others tried to address these shortcomings, some -- including former school board members -- were more concerned with keeping them under wraps and shooting the messenger.”
“This report confirms that there were major problems, and makes plain that there was a concerted effort to silence those trying to bring them to light. “These are very serious issues that have very real, tangible consequences. They set an extremely poor standard for our students. And they’re the symptom of years of resisting oversight and accountability.”
“Most current school board members weren’t in office when most of these problems occurred, nor were our current superintendent and CFO. But it’s our responsibility to clean this up and make sure they don’t happen again.”
“We must continue reviewing the district’s procedures and implementing stronger oversight and internal controls.”
Hammond said the district has already begun tightening up some procurement policies.
Additionally, the audit lists several recommendations for Lexington-Richland 5. These included hiring an internal auditor and appointing an audit committee.
The audit states that the internal auditor would help with “preventative and detective measures,” and the audit committee would serve as “an independent check and balance” on the district.
Hammond said that Dr. Ross and the board were receptive to this idea.
The district shared with its lawyer some of the concerns regarding overspending in the hopes that some of that money could be returned to the district if it is deemed that vendors had not acted properly, Hammond said.
The findings will be reported to the Attorney General’s Office and the Ethics Commission to determine if further action should be taken.
The third and final report from the Jaramillo Accounting Group regarding Lexington-Richland 5 is expected to be released by the end of the year, Hammond said.
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