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Uncovered

In little-watched Greenville fire district, public servants served themselves

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fire dept traffic blurr

Officials spent $3.2 million on a rebuild of Clear Spring Fire and Rescue's main fire station. But a former chief lamented that commissioners did not perch the building in a more central location of the district, allowing firefighters speedier access to calls. Bart Boatwright/Special to The Post and Courier

GREENVILLE — A smoldering fire of unethical or illegal behavior has clouded an obscure taxpayer-funded agency in Greenville County, raising questions about South Carolina’s failure to properly scrutinize hundreds of special government districts that blanket the state.

A Post and Courier investigation into Clear Spring Fire and Rescue uncovered an agency where top officials were accused of stealing taxpayer money, showering themselves with perks, promoting a commissioner’s spouse and retaliating against underlings who challenged them.

Embezzlement allegations prompted back-to-back chiefs to step down. Controversy swirled around a firefighter whose pay tripled while his wife sat on the commission. Former chiefs said they feared retribution from the board. And when a lieutenant tried speaking up about what he saw, he was fired, he asserted in a lawsuit the fire district later settled.

Taken together, these and other examples paint a portrait of nepotism, intimidation and excess at one of the smallest public agencies in South Carolina’s largest county. They also lay bare a broken system of oversight for special districts, one that allowed misconduct to persist and left whistleblowers unsure where to turn for help, the newspaper found.

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Clear Spring firefighters, entrusted to protect a 21-square-mile district in Greenville County, said department leaders' behavior wrecked morale. File/Ashley Tumlin/Special to The Post and Courier

Firefighters said the behavior wrecked morale within the department, which is entrusted with protecting roughly 21 square miles in the well-to-do Greenville suburb of Simpsonville. They pinned the blame squarely on elected board members and other top officials serving themselves before the interests of front-line firefighters and district residents.

Yet few officials have faced questions for their actions, and many of the issues have not been reported, until now. That’s because these districts are among the state’s many islands of governance that regulate themselves, spending taxpayer money largely outside the public's view.

The first installment of The Post and Courier’s "Uncovered" project, published Feb. 14, exposed how S.C. officials running similar agencies gorged on perks, traveled to five-star resorts, dined at pricey restaurants and enjoyed government discounts unavailable to ordinary citizens. The reporting showed how corruption has flourished in South Carolina because of toothless ethics laws, dwindling attention from law enforcement and the decline of local news organizations that once kept an eye on these small-town officials.

Commissioners who run special districts like Clear Spring, formed to provide hyper-local public services, wield significant power in their communities.

They hand-pick leaders of public safety departments. They can levy fees and request tax hikes. Their decisions dictate the cost of your heating bill, whether your drinking water is clean, and if local firefighters have the tools and training to put out the blaze in your neighborhood.

But they also operate independently. And they are selected through a process akin to a high school contest for student council.

Much of the controversy at Clear Spring started after three commissioners won seats as write-in candidates in a November 2015 election. Turnout was typical — fewer than three dozen voters, not enough to fill a school bus.

That’s all it took to gain control of a fire department that now operates with a $2.1 million budget and serves a community of 22,000.

Over the next four years, a commissioner and her firefighter husband were accused of using a department SUV as their personal vehicle — in one instance, they drove it to Disney World for a vacation. The pair also benefited from two promotions that increased his annual pay from $16,000 to $53,000. And commissioners threw lavish end-of-the-year parties, where they charged taxpayers thousands of dollars while passing out gifts and booking overnight stays for themselves at a Greenville hotel.

To be sure, Clear Spring is not the only special district that has run into trouble — The Post and Courier is teaming up with other news organizations across the state to expose even more misconduct at these and other little-watched agencies.

But Clear Spring stands out through its recent parade of scandals — many details of which never came to light. The arrests of two former chiefs received some attention, but there was no follow-up informing the community how the cases were resolved.

The Post and Courier obtained records documenting a separate ethics probe into alleged misdeeds involving former commissioner Angela Mistrulli-Cantone, revealed here for the first time.

Hundreds of pages of testimony from a Clear Spring whistleblower lawsuit also offer a rare window into the abuse that can occur in these seldom-watched agencies.

Lynn Teague, vice president of the S.C. League of Women Voters, described them as South Carolina’s modern-day fiefdoms. “It’s a system that’s designed to fail,” Teague said. “It needs more scrutiny.”

The Post and Courier reviewed more than 1,000 pages of government spending records, lawsuit depositions, state ethics filings and court documents. Reporters interviewed current and former firefighters and Clear Spring officials. And they spoke to experts and people close to the agency who successfully pushed for reforms, creating a blueprint for how other special districts across the state can also safeguard themselves from abuse.

Former commissioners, who have since left the agency, defended their actions. Mistrulli-Cantone said there was nothing improper about the district’s spending, and insisted she stayed out of any personnel decisions involving her then-husband, Phil Cantone.

The two have since separated, Mistrulli-Cantone said, and he didn’t respond to numerous messages left by The Post and Courier.

With a new board, Clear Spring’s current administration stresses they’ve reined in the misbehavior.

“I told the staff what’s happened has happened — nothing we can do to change it,” said Chief Michael Huppmann, hired in 2018. “But we are going to pick it up and move forward."

But before that, Commissioner Randy Allison, whose father helped found the department in the early 1980s, was among those who tried reaching out for help. He outlined his concerns about nepotism, improper spending and other misdeeds in a two-page handwritten letter in 2019.

With no local authority in place that would provide the district some oversight, Allison mailed the letter to the State Ethics Commission in Columbia, 90 miles away.

“I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” he said in an interview.

‘Bingo, you’re in charge’

Special government districts are a vestige of the period before South Carolina counties ruled themselves, when state lawmakers entrusted the management of critical services like sewage treatment and fire protection to lay panels of volunteers.

They sprung up in the Upstate, largely in the 1950s and '60s, typically around rural textile mill villages that lacked those services.

But as populations boomed, the influence of these districts swelled. Their budgets ballooned as they levied property taxes and fees for the services they provided.

Now, hundreds of these districts remain across the state, though no one keeps an exact count — not even the U.S. Census. About 200 are identified by the state as “special purpose districts.”

Others, like Clear Spring, were created separately by county councils and bestowed with similar powers.

In many places, the district commissioners oversee multimillion- dollar budgets.

Yet almost anyone can become a commissioner. South Carolina sets virtually no minimum qualifications for the jobs. No training is required. Candidates for the positions need only sign a statement swearing that they are 18 years old, registered to vote in their district and have not recently been convicted of a felony.

In an interview, Greenville County Councilman Butch Kirven said the process opens the door for potentially unfit candidates to take control of these districts.

“It’s easy to go out and recruit some friends and neighbors to vote for you,” Kirven said. “Bingo, you’re in charge of a fire department.”

At Clear Spring, that meant elections regularly came and went with candidates avoiding any tough or potentially embarrassing questions about their qualifications or past.

Nothing prevented Mistrulli-Cantone from applying for a job overseeing the department where her husband worked, an arrangement that led to accusations of special treatment.

There was no requirement she disclose her family’s two bankruptcies, including one filed by Phil Cantone the year before she ran for election, court records show. She also was not compelled to mention her 2009 misdemeanor theft case in Las Vegas, which The Post and Courier tracked through bankruptcy and other court documents.

Law enforcement agencies have purged their files from that case, but court filings indicate she owed more than $1,400 in restitution. The filings indicate she paid the money back, and the case was dismissed.

In an interview, Mistrulli-Cantone said the dispute covered a $200 check she refused to pay to a dentist who fumbled a procedure. Their financial troubles stemmed from expenses they incurred caring for their special needs children, including one with a terminal illness, she said.

In any event, after a campaign that consisted of knocking on neighbors’ doors, she skated through the 2015 election that swung three of the five seats on the board. Joining her were two other newcomers: Scott Mosher and Bob Huslinger, who moved to the area as old friends from New York. All entered as write-in candidates.

Just 35 voters cast ballots in the contest.

Spending sprees

Scandals followed. In early 2016, the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office opened a probe into longtime Clear Spring Fire Chief Gregory Merritt. In interview transcripts obtained by The Post and Courier, the veteran fireman admitted to investigators he used public money to cover repairs, service and parts on equipment for his landscaping company.

Investigators eventually discovered more than $12,000 in transactions — from just 2015 — on what appeared to be personal items for Merritt, including RV parts, electronics and other goods.

Merritt pleaded guilty to an embezzlement charge and was fined $200. 

Merritt told The Post and Courier his judgment was clouded by several traumatic events in the summer of 2015, including the suicide of a fellow firefighter. He said he has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and has taken up counseling. He said he wanted to contest the charges in court but didn’t have the money to pay a lawyer.

“Did I make some mistakes? Yes,” Merritt said. “Was there any criminal intent? No."

Less than 10 months after Merritt’s resignation in January 2016, his replacement, Joel Lynn, also turned himself in to authorities. Lynn was accused of improperly boosting his own pay and swiping his government credit card for personal expenses, according to media reports that cited charging documents.

The reports indicated Lynn was charged with embezzlement of public funds — valued at $10,000 or less — and two counts of financial transaction card fraud. But it’s unclear what discipline Lynn faced.

State and local law enforcement officials said records for the case do not exist, suggesting charges may have been expunged. The Post and Courier sent a message to Lynn through Clear Spring’s chairman; he declined to comment.

Meantime, with three new commissioners, it didn’t take long for the board’s spending priorities to be called into question by the fire department’s chief.

During one budget meeting in early 2018, former Clear Spring fire chief Gabe Mull said, he requested money to replace firefighting gear and breathing air packs that were close to expiring. But during the meeting, Phil Cantone suggested the board spend the money on three 2016 Chevy Tahoes for the department’s chief and his top deputies, Mull said.

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Clear Spring firefighters lamented that money the fire department's board used to throw parties and buy Chevy Tahoes for top officials could have been used to replace aging protective gear and breathing air packs for firemen. Ashley Tumlin/Special to The Post and Courier

The board bought the Tahoes, flying three firefighters, including Phil Cantone, to Houston to drive them back from Texas. On the trip home, Cantone charged taxpayers $113 in Mississippi during his stay at Harrah’s Gulf Coast Hotel and Casino, records show. Firefighters would later say Cantone used one of the Tahoes as his personal vehicle.

In an interview with The Post and Courier, Mistrulli-Cantone defended the board’s expenses. She insisted Clear Spring had a history of questionable or unethical financial decisions — she even helped flag the sheriff’s office to Merritt’s improper spending, records show. She contends the new board brought a more professional approach.

She said commissioners ought to be commended for their work on a $3.2 million fire station, adding that the old building was dilapidated and had issues with mold. The new station, a glimmering edifice that won an architectural design award, features glass bay windows, a “high end” kitchen and a covered patio.

Clear Spring’s department of 15 full-time firefighters averages 600 to 700 calls a year — less than two a day, according to fire officials.

Mull, chief from 2016-2018, lamented the fact that commissioners perched the new station on the edge of the district instead of a more central location where firefighters could respond more quickly to calls.

“If they go to check the mail across the street, they’re in another fire district,” Mull said.

The three new commissioners were also eventually each given their own credit cards, occasionally racking up thousands in monthly charges, bank statements show.

That included parties in 2017 and 2018 at Dave & Buster’s, an arcade and sports bar, with a spread that included Kobe beef meatballs, game passes and as much as $200 in tips for staff, receipts show. Mistrulli-Cantone booked the parties — for firefighters’ children — at the direction of the board, she said. The parties cost taxpayers about $2,600, the records show.

Parties and perks

Still, those expenses were dwarfed by Clear Spring’s annual bashes at a Greenville hotel.

Firefighters told The Post and Courier said it’s customary to throw some kind of end-of-year party. Earlier Clear Spring gatherings were rustic — one involved a catered barbecue meal inside someone’s barn, a former commissioner recalled. Others were held at the fire station itself.

The new board preferred a ritzier approach.

The Post and Courier obtained receipts from parties the commissioners threw in 2017 and 2018. Those soirees inside a rented banquet hall at Embassy Suites Greenville included more than $3,400 in bar service and a feast for more than 70 people featuring a prime rib carving station.

Taxpayers also picked up the tab for more than a dozen hotel rooms, including overnight stays booked for five commissioners, records show. The hotel was just 20 minutes from Simpsonville.

The parties drew the department’s personnel miles away from its stations, meaning other fire departments had to cover Clear Spring’s territory those nights, Mull and Allison said in interviews.

Mistrulli-Cantone also bought and handed out gift certificates to a local salon, bank statements show, and she won a department award that included a $180 gift certificate to a massage spa.

The total tab cost to taxpayers for both parties? More than $20,000 — enough to buy new protective gear for seven firefighters.

Mistrulli-Cantone said the parties were not all her doing — the board approved the budgets for the gatherings, and she handled the bookings. The firefighters deserved them, she said.

“We said we could probably throw them something spectacular, something they’ve never had before,” she said. “These guys worked so hard, and they don’t really get any recognition.”

Greenville hotel

Commissioners of the Clear Spring Fire and Rescue district charged taxpayers more than $20,000 for a pair of end-of-the-year bashes hosted at the Embassy Suites on Verdae Boulevard in Greenville. Bart Boatwright/Special to The Post and Courier

Huslinger told The Post and Courier he was used to even more lavish parties during his time with a fire department in New York.

Commissioners also accepted other perks that for years had been a custom of these part-time positions: a district-provided phone and memberships to a local gym, valued at $300 annually. 

They were paid through a special fund set up by the S.C. State Firefighters’ Association, intended to help recruit firefighters. Most fire commissioners in South Carolina don’t accept the perks of that fund, which are meant for firefighters, the association’s executive director told The Post and Courier.

Asked about these arrangements, commissioners described them as necessary costs of doing the district's business. “We would do conference calls on certain things,” Huslinger said. “I wasn’t going to use my phone to do it.”

Not everyone is convinced. The board has since axed the practice of accepting district-provided phones or gym memberships, said Todd Milam, the current chairman.

The Post and Courier described the spending and arrangements to Teague, the League of Women Voters official, who said they are “really inappropriate.”

"Serving on a board of that kind should be a public service, not a grab bag of goodies,” Teague said.

‘Untouchable’

Around the same time, department morale was plummeting, firefighters said in interviews and sworn court testimony.

The issues centered on Cantone. He first joined the department after moving to the area with Mistrulli-Cantone in 2011. He was hired full time in 2016 just after Mistrulli-Cantone joined the board, the former chief Lynn recalled in a deposition.

Within months, firefighters were complaining that Cantone was receiving special treatment.

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Angela Mistrulli-Cantone (left) served as a commissioner of Clear Spring Fire and Rescue even as her then-husband, Phil Cantone, worked there as a firefighter. Phil Cantone also saw his salary triple after two promotions during his wife's four-year term. File/Jim Fair/Greer Today

In a sworn 2018 deposition, Clayton Beason, Cantone’s former lieutenant, said Cantone acted like he was “untouchable.” Beason said he feared retaliation from the board after he questioned Cantone’s job skills and confronted him about what Beason described as a poor temper.

“If I wrote him up, I figured I would get fired,” Beason said, according to a transcript of the deposition that was part of a federal lawsuit Beason filed against Clear Spring.

Asked directly in a 2018 deposition if Mistrulli-Cantone pressured Lynn to fire Beason, Lynn responded, “Yes,” adding that she suggested Beason “didn’t know what he was doing, didn’t know how to run his job.”

Lynn also said he feared action from the board if he disciplined Cantone.

“I was afraid of what would happen to me,” Lynn said.

Lynn soon promoted Cantone to fire marshal, even though Beason questioned whether Cantone had the required certification, Beason said in his deposition. Cantone's pay bumped from $16,000 a year to about $30,200. Another promotion eventually tripled his initial compensation to $53,000 — all within four years, state records show.

Mistrulli-Cantone told The Post and Courier the board had nothing to do with those promotions, and she recused herself from any votes involving department salaries.

“I stayed far away from anything that had to do with him,” she said.

Either way, firefighters said their issues with Cantone boiled over after a June 2016 convention in Myrtle Beach, when Cantone was accused by firefighters of drinking before driving a department vehicle. When confronted by Lynn, Cantone denied the accusation, Lynn later said.

In his deposition, Lynn outlined what happened after the incident:

Firefighters held a “gripe session” at the firehouse where they raised concerns about Cantone and the board’s interference in fire department operations.

“Everybody was hollering and screaming,” Lynn recalled, “and I finally put a stop to it about probably 20 minutes into it.”

During an executive session of a board meeting the following month, Lynn said he recommended firing Cantone. Commissioners initially agreed.

But though Mistrulli-Cantone had left the room, she returned and accused them of breaking the law.

“If this is the way it’s going to go, I’ll take this as far as we need to take it,” Mistrulli-Cantone said.

Asked about the incident, commissioners Huslinger and Mistrulli-Cantone said it never happened.

“That is absolutely false,” Mistrulli-Cantone said. “Whenever (Cantone) was ever discussed with the board, I was not present.”

Another commissioner, Allison, said Lynn’s account was accurate.

Cantone did not respond to emailed questions, messages left with his current employer or a Facebook message.

Cantone kept his job. He received his first promotion that fall. More than a year later, the department’s next chief, Mull, elevated Cantone to assistant chief. The job wasn’t publicly advertised, Mull said in a deposition.

In an interview, Mull said he regularly felt pressure from commissioners to protect and promote Cantone.

“It was very much implied that if this didn’t happen, you were failing at your job and they would get rid of you,” Mull said.

Mull fired Beason in October 2016, telling him, “They want new faces,” Beason said in his deposition.

Beason filed his lawsuit in 2017, alleging the district retaliated against him for speaking out against Cantone. The dispute cost taxpayers more than $27,400 in a settlement and legal fees, according to records from the state insurance reserve fund. Through his lawyer, Beason declined to comment.

In his deposition, Beason said he had tried to get the issues resolved long before, but didn’t know where to turn for help. At one point, he went online to look up the phone number for his county councilman.

Beason said he left messages but never heard back.

‘These little empires’

Authorities did eventually step in when the Ethics Commission fined Mistrulli-Cantone for using one of the department’s Tahoes in October 2017 to drive their family to Disney World for a weeklong vacation.

Commissioner Allison wrote the complaint. He attached an email from then-chief Mull explaining that Cantone had wrecked his rental car the morning the family was supposed to leave for the trip. It was around 2:30 a.m., and Cantone said he was returning from Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino in North Carolina.

Before taking the Tahoe, Mistrulli-Cantone said she sought permission from the board’s chairwoman at the time, and Mull told her the department didn’t need the vehicle. In an interview, Mistrulli-Cantone said the family paid for the SUV’s gas on the trip.

Disney World

Former Clear Spring Fire and Rescue Commissioner Angela Mistrulli-Cantone and her firefighter husband, Phil Cantone, used a department vehicle to drive their family to Disney World for a weeklong vacation. File/John Raoux/AP

She agreed to pay Clear Spring $450 in restitution, and a $300 fee to the commission.

“It was wrong, and I own that, and I accept that,” she said about the 2019 case.

Later that year, with her term up, she left the board — along with Mosher and Huslinger.

Greenville County Council also stepped in after hearing complaints from firefighters. The council eliminated Clear Spring’s popular elections — council members now appoint the commissioners themselves. The council also added two seats to the Clear Spring board.

That set up a far more rigorous process, one where the council screens commissioners, checks their backgrounds and votes on the candidacies as a full body.

Teague said that should become a model for other special districts with commissioners selected in low-turnout elections, though she suggested the state should consider whether such entities should exist in the first place.

“South Carolina’s government is structured for the total proliferation of these little empires,” Teague said.

“On the bright side, it makes it easier for people who want to serve to serve,” she added. “On the darker side, if people want to take advantage of their community, there it is.”

The new Clear Spring board got rid of the commissioners’ credit cards, hired an outside auditor and scaled back a practice of holding secretive executive sessions, said Milam, the chairman.

Huppmann, the current chief, composed what he called the district’s first employee handbook, developing a more formal process for promotions.

“I’m a firm believer in checks and balances,” he said.

Clear Spring's current leaders remain adamant about moving on — they mostly declined to discuss their predecessors. But others point to the past as an illustration of what can go wrong when leaders blur ethical lines, ignore rules and wield power with little accountability.

“I try not to be bitter,” said Mull, the former fire chief. “But that whole situation never should have happened.”

It remains unclear how prevalent such issues are among South Carolina’s hundreds of other special districts. But The Post and Courier’s reporting has revealed no fewer than a dozen of these officials across the state were arrested or faced ethics fines in the last decade alone — more than one per year.

And those are just the cases uncovered so far.

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Projects reporter

Avery G. Wilks is an investigative reporter based in Columbia. The USC Honors College graduate was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year for his reporting on South Carolina's nuclear fiasco and abuses within the state's electric cooperatives.

Joseph Cranney is an investigative reporter in Columbia, with a focus on government corruption and injustices in the criminal legal system. He can be reached securely by Proton mail at jcranney@prontonmail.com or on Signal at 215-285-9083.

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