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2 Greenville charities finally get their money after senator sat on their checks

Electric Chair-South Carolina (copy)

In a bizarre case, S.C. Sen. Karl Allen held onto checks for $125,000 worth of earmarks for more than three months rather than distributing them to their recipients. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA — Two Greenville charities whose state grant checks mysteriously disappeared in the care of an Upstate lawmaker have finally gotten their money, less than a week after The Post and Courier reported on the senator’s months-long failure to deliver the payments.

State officials this month voided the checks that state Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, had originally been entrusted to deliver to those charities — a combined $75,000 to pay for an afterschool program for underprivileged children and a fitness park for low-income seniors.

The Department of Health and Human Services then reissued new checks and allowed the veteran senator to hand-deliver them this week, finally releasing money that had been promised to the groups since last June, when S.C. legislators passed the 2021-22 state budget.

DHHS followed up with the charities to ensure the handoff had actually taken place this time around, an agency spokesman said.

However, a third charity whose check Allen withheld will miss out on its $50,000 grant, after all. DHHS said it decided this week to cancel the payment to Lisa’s School House Rocks, an educational summer camp for children, because the nonprofit hadn’t purchased the necessary insurance policies to remain in compliance with state regulations.

Lisa Sweeney, the charity's director, said she was surprised to hear her group was getting left out. She said she was relying on the grant money to pay for her insurance. She speculated Allen was retaliating against her for criticizing his failure to deliver the grant money. "I can't believe that," Sweeney said. 

Allen did not immediately respond to a May 19 request for comment.

Allen delivered the other checks this week even as questions continued to swirl about why he withheld the money in the first place.

The 61-year-old attorney dodged charity leaders' questions about the missing checks for months before releasing a puzzling statement last week that blamed the “slight delay” on “the unique challenges of COVID and the safety protocols that guided gatherings involving seniors and children.”

Those purported challenges did not stop other legislators from delivering grants to their intended recipients. One nonprofit leader told The Post and Courier Allen’s excuse was nonsense.

The episode has renewed scrutiny of how S.C. legislators dole out tens of millions of dollars in the state budget each year for local projects of their choice. These budget earmarks are rarely scrutinized, with money flowing to local governments, charities and events.

Despite the lack of oversight, these budget earmarks cost taxpayers about $100 million last year. Next year’s budget will include at least another $90 million in earmarks.

The state agencies that house such earmarks, such as DHHS, often send the money directly to the recipients when the state budget is approved each year. But they also sometimes allow the legislators who requested the money to hand-deliver the checks so they can take credit.

Gov. Henry McMaster has called on lawmakers for years to do away with the earmarks practice and instead set up a competitive grants process. Lawmakers have declined.

The groups that finally got their earmarks this week were the Phillis Wheatley Community Center and the Emma Wright Fuller Foundation.

Phillis Wheatley says its $25,000 grant will help pay for a 1,000-square-foot outdoor fitness park for seniors just off the Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville. The exercise equipment will be free to use, accessible to those with disabilities and located within a block of four low-income senior housing facilities.

The Emma Wright Fuller Foundation supports the century-old Fuller Normal private elementary school. It will use its $50,000 grant to pay for an afterschool program that helps students with their reading, writing and math. The foundation had struggled to pay for the program while awaiting the money Allen had promised, Chief Financial Officer Lillie Akali told the newspaper.

Reach Avery Wilks at 803-374-3115. Follow him on Twitter at @AveryGWilks. Send tips to averywilks93@protonmail.com.