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SC school district hired chairman's wife for 'complex' legal work outside her primary field

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Tameika Isaac Devine 2019 city council (2020_1_31_copy)

Tameika Isaac Devine. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — A Columbia City Council member received tens of thousands of dollars in public money from the school board her husband chairs to perform legal work outside her primary field of expertise, records show.

Richland County School District One paid real estate attorney Tameika Isaac Devine at least $85,000 to prepare bonds for school improvement projects — work generally done by a more specialized cadre of attorneys. Isaac Devine is married to school board chairman Jamie Devine.

Jamie Devine insists he had nothing to do with his spouse’s hiring and has recused himself from votes on the matter.

Yet the arrangement between the district and Isaac Devine spans a decade and began just months after Jamie Devine first took his seat on the seven-member school board in 2008.

And state Rep. Todd Rutherford, a criminal defense attorney who the district has also hired for bond work, acknowledged that political connections play a role in securing it.

“The people that get bond work — they’re all politically connected,” he said.

Jamie Devine was first appointed chair in 2012. During his tenure, the district retained Isaac Devine on no fewer than seven taxpayer-financed bonds, according to a Post and Courier review of public bond documents. For her work on two of those projects, she netted $85,000. It wasn't immediately clear how much she received on the others.

Isaac Devine has served on City Council since 2002 and is seen as a potential successor to Mayor Steve Benjamin. She primarily practices property law, handling such duties as title searches and real estate closings. 

But year after year Richland One has turned to her two-attorney operation for help preparing mounds of paperwork on multi-million dollar bonds that financed improvements to everything from classroom equipment to athletic facilities.

The arrangement raises ethical questions for Commissioner Jonathan Milling, the only lawyer on the Richland One board. He stressed that family business interests should be kept at arm's length from the pots of public money controlled by elected officials.

"A board member should not benefit directly or indirectly with any contracts the district is entering into," said Milling, who joined the board last month.

Jamie Devine noted that his spouse, before they were married, handled more minor real estate work for the district in the early 2000s, which played a role in her selection for the bond work.

Isaac Devine also insisted she was selected for her qualifications, not her connections. 

Highly specialized

Still, public finance lawyers say bond work is a highly specialized and complicated field.

Selling municipal bonds to investors — loans repaid through public tax dollars — is a process commonly used to finance public improvements across South Carolina and the country. Before those bonds can be issued, lawyers must issue opinions on the bond's legal validity and tax status.

The lawyers are so critical to publicly financed bonds that the industry for decades has kept a running directory of law firms that local governments across the country can turn to for qualified help. 

Isaac Devine has not registered her Columbia-based Jabber & Isaac firm with The Bond Buyer’s Municipal Marketplace, known as the “Red Book.”

Instead, she said, her selection came through a Richland One policy that urges the district to work with women- or-minority-owned companies. That practice opened the door for Isaac Devine to partner with a Red Book-listed firm that specializes in bond work, which she said allowed her to learn as she aided the district in borrowing millions of dollars. 

“It’s about having the determination to say this is an area in which I want to learn,” Isaac Devine said. “How else do people expect me to get the experience under my belt?”

Susan Williams, general counsel for Richland One, said that bond attorneys partnering with women- or minority-owned firms is not a district requirement, but has been its practice for decades.

A similar practice has been used by the city of Columbia and Richland County, though it is not used by Greenville schools or the Charleston County School District.

Isaac Devine wasn't the only lawyer with political connections to secure work from Richland One through the practice. 

Among them: state Rep. Chris Hart, a Columbia Democrat who primarily handles wrongful death and DUI cases, and Rutherford, a Columbia Democrat and sitting House minority leader.

Also landing work was Brian DeQuincey Newman, a former Columbia councilman. Newman's law license was later suspended in 2016 after he pleaded guilty to failing to pay state taxes. His law license was reinstated last year.

Rutherford acknowledged that politics plays a hand in securing the Richland One work. He noted that the McNair Law Firm, a firm often hired for bond work in Columbia, was founded by the late former Gov. Robert McNair.

“Politicians are the ones choosing; people go to people they feel comfortable with,” Rutherford added.

'It’s very complex'

Exactly how much Richland One has paid Isaac Devine for her work is unclear. The district doesn’t have an exact total because checks weren’t always cut to Isaac Devine directly. In two instances on multi-million dollar bonds, a district accountant said fees totaling more than $500,000 were split between Isaac Devine and Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, the firm she partners with on the bond work.

Demetrius D. Scott, the Richland County treasurer accountant, said their office didn't know how much Isaac Devine was paid from those fees. Parker Poe referred a question about the payments to Isaac Devine.

Isaac Devine said her split of those attorney fees was likely no greater than 30 percent, though she could not recall her exact amounts.

She and her husband are not required to report the amounts in their annual financial disclosures for public officials because the money went to her law firm, not to her directly, according to an opinion by the South Carolina Ethics Commission.

Jamie Devine said he didn't know how much his wife was paid for the work from his district, and stressed that he stays out of the matter by recusing himself from the district's votes on bond contracts. 

Milling, his fellow board commissioner, said recusal is not enough.

"It's the people you regularly do business with, are they going to vote against your wife receiving a direct benefit?" he said.

He noted he would be uncomfortable if his wife, a lawyer, submitted a bid for work from the district.

Jamie Devine said his spouse is just one of more than a dozen bond attorneys the district has worked with.

“The work is on a rotating basis,” he said.

Rutherford, a criminal defense lawyer, rejected notions that only specialized bond attorneys can handle the work. Though he hasn’t been retained for that work in years, he said it wouldn’t take long to get back up to speed.

“The people who do this every day, what they want the world to believe, is that only they are capable of doing it,” Rutherford said. “And that’s not true.”

Not everyone is convinced.

Samuel Hollow, of Charleston’s Howell, Linkous & Nettles firm, has practiced public finance law for more than 30 years. “It’s very complex,” he said.

Typically, bond lawyers draft legal opinions attesting to the government’s authority to sell the bonds and declare whether investors are exempt from paying income taxes on the bond’s interest.

Because those have long been a bond lawyer’s key duties, Howell questioned the necessity of using multiple law firms to prepare the paperwork.

“They don’t need two opinions,” he said. “They just need one. It just seems they’re paying fees that are not necessary.”

Isaac Devine maintained that she has handled every facet of the bond work, including huddling with other attorneys and helping draft opinions. She said she has also attended training sessions hosted by the National Association of Bond Lawyers, though she hasn’t gone in years and is not one of the association's 46 members in South Carolina.

Since Richland One first hired Isaac Devine in 2009, she has gone on to help prepare legal work for another two dozen bond contracts issued by nine other local governments or agencies, in addition to work she’s handled for state-issued bonds, according to a list she provided.

Parker Poe, frequent partner to Isaac Devine on the Richland One bonds, defended her work.

Ray Jones, a partner in the firm’s Columbia office, said as with any legal matter, the work is divided among the lawyers “with the more experienced firm taking the lead on the appropriate tasks.”

Jones also supports the district's practice of hiring women- or minority-owned firms, saying it brings diversity to the field. 

A neighbor to Richland One also recently adopted a similar practice. Richland School District Two for a bond issued last year asked its attorneys to diversify its team by partnering with a local firm. 

The lawyer they picked? Isaac Devine.

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