Richland Council considers Paul Livingston as chair

The Richland County Council convenes in a Jan. 7, 2020, meeting. The council voted to reappoint Councilman Paul Livingston as chair, despite concerns raised in a memo by Councilwoman Dalhi Myers. Joseph Cranney/Staff

COLUMBIA — The local officials running South Carolina’s capital county are, again, ensnared in controversy.

Recent public arguments among Richland County council members have included: a near $1 million severance paid to a fired administrator, roughly $41 million in misspent tax dollars and a shelved $144 million county improvements project.

The newest allegations: Council members accepted sexual favors at a strip club.

Marred by those disputes, council members kicked off the new year with a vow to beat back a wave of scandal and right the ship.

“Richland County does so many important things,” Councilman Paul Livingston said. “We need to do a better job highlighting that.”

But an internal memo that leaked this week and other revelations do little to stem criticisms of the management abilities of the council, which oversees a $1.3 billion budget in a county of roughly 400,000 residents. 

The most recent infighting was spurred largely by the surprise vote in April 2018 to fire former administrator Gerald Seals. 

In a memo last week, Councilwoman Dalhi Myers contended the firing was retaliation, at least in part, for Seals' request for a criminal investigation into allegations that several council members, whom she did not name, traded votes for sexual favors from "exotic dancers."

But an anonymous letter from dancers at Platinum Plus strip club in Columbia that prompted Seals' inquiry alleges only one council member accepted “free services” as part of a deal that purportedly “promised lifelong privileges for our services.”

“As ordered petite white girls we did what we were told to do,” reads the one-page letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Post and Courier. “We were tipped for dancing and not for the sex or sexual acts. And we have proof if we have to produce.”

The letter, dated Dec. 1, 2010, was signed “Diamond and friends," with a line drawing of a diamond as the signature.

In an interview this week, Seals said the letter was sent to him sometime around the end of 2017. After he brought it to the council’s attention, members directed County Attorney Larry Smith to notify the State Law Enforcement Division, Seals said.

Smith didn’t respond to emailed questions or two phone messages left at his office this week. A SLED spokeswoman said the agency searched its files but could not immediately determine if it opened a case.

Seals said he intended to air the issue publicly if the council had granted his request for a hearing where he could argue to keep his job.

Instead, the council voted to pay him a $984,000 severance. 

Since then, Seals has largely stayed silent until approached about the letter by a reporter.

“I have avoided saying anything about these things because I have not wanted anyone to think I was doing anything out of retaliation,” he said.

His termination came as an abrupt end to his contentious two-year tenure.

During that time, Seals' most ambitious project was "Richland Renaissance," a $144 million venture for upgrades to county facilities, a new courthouse and other services that included buying empty anchor stores at Columbia Place Mall.

But Seals sparred with council members over his plans for the project, which the council later scrapped. Last year, the council agreed to revamp the project with a narrower scope.

Another recent controversy involved a special sales tax passed by Richland voters that was supposed to fund improvements to the county's roads. Just last month, state auditors found officials misspent that money to the tune of $41 million, according to a report in The State newspaper.

Through it all, Seals had a vocal backer on the council in Myers, who has defended his work and praised him for raising flags about issues with the sales tax program. 

But in another public salvo, a Richland resident contended that Myers' support for Seals went too far. This dispute ended up in Circuit Court, where resident William Coggins is fighting for Richland to recoup the nearly $1 million the council paid Seals.

In court filings, Coggins attached text messages between Myers and Seals from the day his settlement was reached, in which the pair discusses the dollar amount Seals should seek. 

"Don’t counter small or reasonable. Go big," Myers texted Seals.

Coggins alleges the exchange to be improper coordination. His lawsuit is still pending.

Myers rose to Seals' defense again in a three-page memo to her colleagues on the council, which was published by The State newspaper this week.

Myers lost her support for Livingston, the council chair, for his role in the handling of Seals' firing, Myers wrote, among "countless" examples of what she describes as "inappropriate conduct" from the council toward Seals. 

She declined to elaborate on the memo to The Post and Courier.

None of her issues were aired in a brisk meeting Tuesday, in which Livingston, the longest-tenured Richland council member, retained his chair in a split vote. Council members brushed aside Myers' allegations afterward. 

Councilman Bill Malinowski said he didn't give Myers' memo anymore than a glance. Livingston declined to discuss her allegations in detail. He reserved his comments to the brief remarks he gave to council.

"Thank you for your vote of confidence," he said. "I will continue to serve the county in a dignified and respectful way."

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Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.