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Dirty Deeds

Chester gas authority bought tons of dirt for agency execs, raising fresh spending questions


chester gas ribbon cutting (copy)

Staff and board members of Chester County Natural Gas Authority at a ribbon-cutting for their new building in 2018. From left to right, Jason Stewart, general manager; Richard Hall, board member; Marvin Waldrep, board member; W.T. Holmes; and Michael Enoch, executive director of Patriots Energy Group. File/Brian Garner/The (Chester) News & Reporter

CHESTER — Two executives with Chester County Natural Gas Authority used the agency they run to buy tons of dirt and crushed rock for themselves — new examples of how officials here used public resources for personal projects, an Uncovered follow-up investigation found.

The two administrators, Jason Stewart and Richard Tarlton, eventually reimbursed the agency for the rock and dirt, at least 12 truckloads in all, records show.

But Stewart, the general manager, did so months later and only after The Post and Courier began asking questions. Both didn't respond to multiple phone and email requests for comment.

The new revelations reinforce earlier Uncovered findings that South Carolina’s five public gas authorities, including the one in Chester County, spent hundreds of thousands of ratepayer dollars in questionable ways and with little accountability.

These little-scrutinized special purpose districts serve more than 160,000 customers across the state. They include the Chester County gas authority, two agencies in York and Lancaster counties, one in the Clinton and Newberry area, and the Fort Hill Natural Gas Authority in the Upstate.

Community leaders in the 1950s created these government agencies to provide heating and cooking gas to rural areas and small towns — people who had been left behind by investor-owned utilities.

But a report in February by The Post and Courier highlighted how these agencies now operate like cushy fiefdoms.

In the latest Uncovered finding, invoices show that the Chester gas authority cut a $600 check to Rogers Grading in Rock Hill for two loads of topsoil on April 10, 2020. The words “employee will reimburse” were written on the invoice. Stewart did so on Feb. 25 — more than 10 months later.

Another invoice showed the agency paying $1,275 to Robert W. Lee, a Chester grading company, on Sept. 15. The invoice was for "6 tandem loads of dirt" and "3 small dump loads of dirt." Stewart reimbursed the authority for $1,275 on Feb. 10 — nearly five months after the delivery.

Both reimbursements came after the newspaper had interviewed people in connection with the purchases and filed multiple document requests under the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Stewart earns $145,820 as general manager. The agency also provides him with a high-end pickup truck.

Stewart wasn’t the only manager using the agency to buy personal supplies.

A third invoice shows the authority paid $102.27 to Lehigh Hanson Aggregates for 5.3 tons of crushed rock on Nov. 11, 2020. The words “employee will reimburse” were again written on the invoice. Tarlton, the agency’s construction manager, reimbursed the agency six weeks later for $166.46. It was unclear why he paid more than the original invoice.

Tarlton earns more than $75,000 and also gets an agency pickup.

At least one witness told The Post and Courier he spotted the authority's equipment at Stewart's property last year.

Mike Austin said he left the company in late 2019 after working there for 21 years. He said on Oct. 20, at about 6 p.m., he was passing Stewart’s home and noticed a backhoe, dirt and loading trucks.

Austin said he stopped and snapped photos of the equipment, which he shared with The Post and Courier. He said he was close enough to recognize the voice of Tarlton, who appeared to be operating a backhoe.

“The general manager and the other manager, Richard Tarlton, I knew them personally. Richard’s a whiz on the backhoe, and I could tell the way the backhoe was moving that it was him. And he’s also very vocal, so there’s no doubt in my mind it was him.”

He said also saw the agency’s equipment at Stewart’s property the year before.

The Post and Courier left voicemails on Stewart's and Tarlton's phones and emailed questions about reimbursements and appropriateness of using the agency to buy personal materials.

They didn't respond, but the authority's attorney, Paul Dillingham, emailed: "The comment I will make as the lawyer for CCNGA is that your basic fact pattern is both misleading and incorrect." Asked for specifics, he said, "Sorry, that one I will leave for you" and "thanks … no more questions for now please."

In its February report, The Post and Courier revealed that board members and executives at South Carolina's gas authorities regularly spent tens of thousands of dollars on retreats at pricey resorts in recent years. They dined with spouses at expensive restaurants, played golf, even flew down zip lines and took glass-blowing lessons — all on the ratepayers’ dime and far from the prying eyes of reporters and interested citizens.

Board members also snagged discounts on heaters and appliances by buying them through the agencies they oversee and having employees install them at their homes for free — deals unavailable to the public and ones that place them squarely in ethical gray zones. 

South Carolina's ethics law says that a public official must not use the job to "obtain an economic interest for himself." And if officials do receive gifts or valuable perks, they must report them to the state Ethics Commission, according to the law. After the initial Uncovered report, several board members of the Clinton Newberry Natural Gas Authority amended their reports to the ethics commission to reflect the appliance deals they'd received.

But Stewart defended the agency's practices, telling The (Chester) News & Reporter, an Uncovered partner, that he saw no problem with trips with spouses, including a three-day retreat at the swank Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C. — a meeting that cost $34,000 for lodging, meals, golf and a tour of Biltmore Estate. 

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

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