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Charleston County employees flagged for misusing charge cards to get perks

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The Lonnie Hamilton III Public Services Building

The Lonnie Hamilton III Public Services Building. File

Charleston County employees racked up thousands of dollars in questionable expenses on county charge cards since 2017, ranging from the rental of a Mercedes convertible to $2,000 for party tumblers, records obtained by The Post and Courier show.

Meantime, county procurement officials in recent months cited department heads for failing to keep charge card statements, receipts for travel, sign-up sheets for meetings and other basic records that prevent abuse, documents show.

Similar to credit cards, purchase cards allow employees to buy items on the county’s tab. But absent strict controls, they’re ripe for abuse.

In late 2017, for instance, procurement officials noticed suspicious charges by an employee in the Emergency Management Division.

When they confronted her, she said she used the cards by mistake. She couldn’t provide receipts and other documentation, an audit said.

Digging deeper, procurement officials eventually identified nearly $25,000 in questionable charges, an internal audit memo said. The employee, Patty Pace, resigned and later was charged with embezzlement.

The incident triggered a wider look at purchase card expenses.

This new scrutiny also came amid several high-profile public corruption cases: Last year, Berkeley County School District’s chief financial officer, Brantley D. Thomas III, was accused of embezzling more than $1.2 million from public coffers; and earlier this year, The Post and Courier exposed questionable spending by Columbia-area prosecutor Dan Johnson and his office. Those revelations eventually led to federal charges against Johnson and an assistant.

On Monday, Charleston County provided the newspaper with a cache of audits, memos and other documents in response to its request under the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Those documents show that as county procurement officials waded deeper into departments’ expenses this year, they found a pattern of lax record-keeping and procurement rule violations.

The county’s Central Parts Warehouse couldn’t locate half of their credit card statements and had to reorder them from Bank of America.

Similar problems were found in the Telecommunications Department.

The Awendaw Fire Department, which is part of the Emergency Management Department, couldn’t find receipts at first, but later found them in the wrong folder. An audit found a fire department employee charged $2,008.91 for party tumblers.

A Public Works employee was flagged for $372 in charges for a personal trip and later had his card suspended for six months.

As the procurement officials flagged questionable expenses, some department heads offered apologies and promises to do better.

“While we strive to ensure every staff member retains and submits receipts in a timely manner, we sometimes find that staff members have lost or otherwise misplaced them,” Steve Dukes, executive director of economic development, wrote in a memo. “We know this is unacceptable.”

Procurement officials appear to have taken an especially close look at the Human Resources Department, records show.

One employee spent more than $6,100 this spring for “well being events” or “health screening incentives.” Statements show purchases from Amazon, Costco, TJ Maxx — often for household items such as mixing bowls, flashlights, toothbrushes, spatulas and other kitchen wares. More than $2,300 was spent on 650 Therm-O Super Snack cooler tote bags.

The department’s director, Fagan Stackhouse, resigned Nov. 5, to take a job in Raleigh, a county spokesman said. Stackhouse declined to comment, but in a written response to the auditor’s findings, Interim Human Resources Director Susan Steed explained that the Wellness Program encourages employees to pursue healthy lifestyles and that the program often involves giveaways.

She added that questioned expenses had been reviewed, and “most were in alignment with types of purchases described under HR Programs and Services.”

However, the explanations for some expenses remain unclear.

On Nov. 6, 2017, a Human Resources employee rented a Mercedes convertible for $201.97 during a business trip to Florida.

A year later, and within days of The Post and Courier’s request for documents, the rental car company sent a revised invoice — this time for $143.08.

In an email to the employee, the rental car company explained that it had given her an upgrade at “no additional charge” because the reserved vehicle wasn’t available. There was no explanation for the late timing of this new invoice.

Procurement officials also hammered departments for letting their employees use purchase cards to rack up frequent-flyer and other reward points.

They noted that county regulations don’t allow employees to use county expenses to earn rewards “for their personal gain.”

County officials say they’ve drawn up stricter guidelines for the use of purchase cards, and that staff will be retrained on how to use them and keep records. Charleston County Council Chairman Vic Rawl said he expects council to weigh in.

“Obviously, there is an issue, so obviously, at some point in time, we’re going to request the administrator to tell us what’s going on, what was found out and what she intends to do about it,” he said.

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Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554. Follow him on Twitter @tbartelme.

Tony Bartelme is senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier. He has earned national honors from the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb and National Press foundations and is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reach him at 843-937-5554 and @tbartelme

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.