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Richland One employee credit card spending under fire amid criminal fraud investigation

Richland One administration building (copy)

The Columbia Police Department’s ongoing investigation into alleged fraud by a former Richland One employee brings more scrutiny to a district that some parents and taxpayers have regularly accused of mismanaging public money. File/Jessica Holdman/Staff

COLUMBIA — A former Richland One School District purchasing official stands accused of misspending tens of thousands of dollars on hotel stays, the unauthorized rental of a 2020 GMC Yukon, and a no-bid order for COVID-19 supplies that he was instructed to cancel after his supervisor red-flagged the vendor.

Richland One lodged those allegations against former procurement manager Travis Braddy as parents, taxpayers and the district's own internal auditor raise larger concerns about the school system’s spending practices and financial oversight.

Records from Richland One’s internal investigation, obtained by The Post and Courier, reveal that the state’s ninth-largest school district allowed Braddy to resign in May amid its inquiry instead of firing him, a move that perplexed the district’s internal auditor. Richland One failed to report the allegations to law enforcement until six months later.

The Columbia Police Department has launched an ongoing criminal investigation into the Braddy matter, another layer of scrutiny to a district that some parents and taxpayers have regularly accused of mismanaging public money. In all, the district has accused Braddy of misspending nearly $41,400, according to a police report.

Braddy did not answer requests for comment made by phone, email and regular mail. Braddy’s attorney, David Hawkins, requested that questions for this story be submitted in writing and then did not respond to them.

News of the probe comes as a group of parents and taxpayers, who call themselves the Coalition for Transparency in Richland One, are circulating a 69-page report that accuses the Columbia-area district of bungling its purchasing card program.

Purchase cards, often simply called P-cards, are similar to consumer credit cards. They have become popular with government agencies that let employees use them for small transactions to avoid processing costs and paperwork. Most often, they are used to pay for legitimate government expenses. But they also create tracking headaches for supervisors and inherently raise the risk of misuse and fraud.

In December 2018, the FBI charged Allendale Town Administrator DeWayne Ennis with using bank cards to buy a car and pay for auto and home repairs. Ennis pleaded guilty to a charge of stealing federal funds.

Former Columbia-area prosecutor Dan Johnson spent a year in prison after using his P-cards for pricey meals, Christmas parties, luxury Uber rides and other amenities. His assistant pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges after using her P-card to fly to Kentucky to visit family and visit an orthodontist.

Ex-Richland County Council Vice Chairwoman Dalhi Myers was indicted in December 2020 on charges she used her county card to cover trips to Greece, Detroit and Nashville, Tenn. — as well as chocolates, books and a cellphone. Her case remains pending. 

In recent years, Richland One’s P-card handbook listed more than 170 spending categories that were listed as prohibited on district credit cards. Those so-called "blocked vendors" include utility payments, fast-food restaurants, dry cleaners and amusement parks.

But the parents’ group found Richland One employees and leaders have spent more than $322,000 with banned vendors on their cards over the past half-decade.

Some of their findings echo a report by the district’s own internal auditor in August, which found Richland One’s credit cardholders spent freely with vendors that were supposed to be blocked, didn’t document the business justification for their expenses and enjoyed little scrutiny from their supervisors.

Internal auditor Kelvin Washington sampled just a sliver of the district’s $2.2 million in P-card spending in 2020 and found about $148,000 in transactions with forbidden vendors — nearly half of it for food and groceries. Washington pointed out nearly $1,500 spent for 60 embroidered coolers, more than $1,000 on flowers, $267 for holiday cards around Thanksgiving, $557 for a Christmas tree and $171 for pet training pads from Walmart.

A district spokeswoman pushed back strongly on the notion that Richland One is rampant with fraudulent spending. Spokeswoman Karen York accused the parents’ group of cherry-picking its facts to make the district look bad but acknowledged Richland One has recognized shortcomings in its procurement card program and made changes.

Regardless, York insisted, Richland One reviews every transaction for each of its 140 cardholders and responds appropriately in the rare instances it discovers problems. She held up the Braddy investigation as a testament to the district’s financial oversight.

Richland One school board Chairwoman Cheryl Harris agreed, saying she is confident in the district’s checks and balances.

“There is no ongoing issue in Richland One,” said Harris, who has spent a decade on the board. “This is Richland One doing their job.”

Others aren’t so sure.

Critics say the Braddy case illustrates why they still harbor doubts about the district’s stewardship of tax dollars. Getting Richland One’s finances in order should be a top priority for a district that has faced criticism over lagging test scores, rising school taxes and administrative bloat, they say.

“The buck stops with the board, period,” said Beatrice King, a Richland One board member who has been critical of Superintendent Craig Witherspoon’s administration. “And the board has never recognized that. A deep dive needs to be done in a transparent way. These are taxpayers’ dollars. This is public money. If we claim that we run so well, why do we keep running into these things?”

'A red flag'

The Braddy investigation sprung from an April purchase that his boss found suspicious.

Braddy, who had been with the district for 10 months, is a 43-year-old Army veteran whose resume listed two decades of logistics, transportation and purchasing experience. Richland One hired him in June 2020 to a $60,480-a-year job as one of its two procurement managers, a high-ranking position with great authority to purchase supplies for the district’s 52 schools.

But that April, Braddy’s supervisor noticed something peculiar, investigation records show: Braddy wanted to pay a vendor more than $10,000 for 22 pallets of surgical gowns, but he hadn’t formally solicited multiple bids for the supplies, as required.

And when Richland One Procurement Director LaShonda Outing took a closer look at the proposed vendor, she found that the company had been in business for less than six months. Its mailing address was a storage facility in Georgia.

“This was a red flag,” Outing would later write.

She sent an email instructing Braddy to cancel the purchase and find another vendor for the gowns. She reminded him the district was no longer using emergency contracts to purchase COVID-19 supplies and said he would need to seek other bids for such expensive orders, emails show.

But Braddy didn’t completely cancel the order. Instead, minutes later, he lowered the purchase amount to $9,388 and went forward with the deal, according to investigation records. Braddy’s estranged wife, Shemata Bradley, told The Post and Courier that Braddy personally knows the woman who owns the business.

Efforts to reach the woman for comment were unsuccessful.

Less than a month after Braddy’s order, Outing typed out another email — this time to Richland One human resources chief Jeff Long.

“Travis Braddy has disregarded a directive and been insubordinate by issuing a Purchase Order on April 19, 2021,” she wrote on May 10.

“I suspect that this may be a fraud situation that has come about,” Outing wrote in closing. “The check has been cashed and cleared.”

District's investigation

The district quickly launched an investigation into Braddy and put him on administrative leave, records show.

The more they dug, the more they found.

An internal report identified at least $20,000 in spending that the district deemed fraudulent, including the order for gowns.

Braddy allegedly used district-issued P-cards — including his boss’s — to cover nearly $2,900 in stays at the Hilton Garden Inn in Columbia’s Harbison area, the report found. That included a stay at the hotel from Nov. 7-23, 2020, and another from Dec. 7-27, 2020. Richland One employees generally aren’t allowed to use the district’s P-cards for lodging. Nor are they allowed to use each other’s cards.

District investigators alleged spending records were falsified to indicate Braddy was purchasing COVID-19 supplies, including masks and nitrile gloves, from the hotel. Investigators said they found “several fabricated invoice type documents” and logos from various vendors when they searched his district-issued laptop.

The hotel told the district that Braddy had stayed there on many occasions, but they never sold him any PPE equipment, investigators wrote.

The district also alleged that Braddy spent nearly $7,950 of the district’s money to rent a 2020 GMC Yukon from Hertz. Braddy didn’t have permission to rent the vehicle when he inked the $1,460-a-month contract in November 2020, investigators wrote.

On district spending records, Braddy indicated the lease was for a “rental truck for movement services and (warehouse) purposes when a vehicle goes down during COVID-19 PPE delivery.”

But Braddy’s wife told The Post and Courier he used the Yukon as a take-home vehicle.

Resignation vs. termination

Braddy resigned 17 days after his suspension.

In internal documents obtained by The Post and Courier, the district’s internal auditor, Washington, questioned how Braddy’s departure was handled. Braddy’s resignation could allow him to move on to a similar job somewhere else, Washington noted in a June 11 memo.

“It was stated that Mr. Braddy was allowed to resign,” Washington wrote to the superintendent, Witherspoon, and Richland One Chief Financial Officer Sherri Mathews-Hazel. “Based on his fraudulent activities and in accordance with the District’s Code of Excellence and Upslope guidelines, Mr. Braddy should have been terminated. Law enforcement may question why he was not terminated if his actions were egregious enough to warrant a criminal referral.”

The district intended to file a formal police report against Braddy last summer, spokeswoman York told the newspaper. But the district’s director of security, who no longer works at Richland One, failed to file the report, York said.

The district ultimately did not bring the matter to law enforcement until Nov. 16, when it formally accused Braddy of misusing nearly $41,400 in district funds, records show.

“The victims stated that the listed suspects used his entrusted position to take money from the victim without the victim’s knowledge or permission,” according to the nine-page report, which the Columbia Police Department heavily redacted before releasing to the newspaper.

The department launched an investigation into the allegations that day, spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said. Four months later, that probe remains ongoing, she said.

Richland One declined to answer most of the newspaper’s questions about the Braddy matter or explain how his alleged theft ballooned to $41,400, saying it could not comment on a personnel matter that remains under investigation.

An isolated incident?

Critics said they are alarmed by allegations that a district employee was able to misspend district money for months before it was discovered. They wonder how often such abuses aren’t uncovered.

Richland One board member Robert Lominack, a lawyer, questioned why Braddy wasn’t fired.

“Allowing him to resign — to me, that’s insane,” Lominack said. “My first board meeting, we voted to revoke a teacher’s license because they quit in the middle of their contract. … To allow someone who you are alleging stole tens of thousands of dollars to resign raises questions about a double standard.”

Others say Braddy’s alleged misspending is par for the course at Richland One.

In December, a group of parents and taxpayers sent state officials — including the governor, education superintendent, attorney general and top lawmakers — a lengthy missive accusing the district of misspending hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money and failing to properly oversee its procurement card program.

The Coalition for Transparency in Richland One ponied up more than $350 for open-records requests to obtain a half-decade’s worth of Richland One’s P-card spending records.

They say the data show Richland One employees have spent exorbitantly with banned vendors. Those expenditures included more than $237,300 at restaurants and caterers, some $39,000 with advertisers, more than $7,300 at florists, nearly $6,700 at photography studios, $1,000 at movie theaters, nearly $850 at bowling alleys and $400 at car washes.

Superintendent Witherspoon was the worst offender, the group said, piling up 242 blocked transactions worth nearly $73,000 over that span.

Government agencies typically use software to prevent their credit cards from working when swiped at banned vendors without prior approval, state Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom told The Post and Courier. That system doesn’t seem to have been in place at Richland One, he said.

“It shouldn’t be that way,” Eckstrom said. “It’s not a good way to run an organization that has so much public money running through it. It seems to me that there’s not a lot of careful oversight.”

The Coalition for Transparency said it found no indication that Richland One recovered any misspent money and called for a closer inspection of the district’s P-card program.

Gregory Cornelius, founder of the Richland County Black Collective and one of the report’s signers, said he’s concerned about the spending and wonders how that money could be put to better use, given three-quarters of Richland One students live in poverty. He said the P-card program, originally created to save time and money on processing costs for small transactions, now looks like a slush fund for district officials.

“It’s confusing,” Cornelius said. “What’s the purpose? It’s just greed. It’s just pure greed.”

Richland One pushed back on that report. In a written statement, spokeswoman York accused the group of “cherry-picking information in an attempt to advance an agenda or create a narrative that there is rampant fraud and wrongdoing taking place in Richland One, which is absolutely untrue.”

York acknowledged that Richland One wasn’t fully implementing its blocked vendor list but said most of the spending with forbidden vendors is actually reasonable and appropriate. She said employees are allowed to purchase gas for their district-issued vehicles or book flights and hotel rooms for out-of-state conferences on their district cards, for example, even if those transactions are with blocked vendors.

If all the vendors listed as prohibited were actually blocked, York said, “there could be no transactions for which you could use a P-card.”

She said the district is in the process of determining what kinds of spending should actually be banned.

Either way, York said, Richland One estimates just 1 percent of its employee P-card expenses are deemed improper. The district addresses those cases with its employees, she said.

All of Superintendent Witherspoon's transactions were "allowable and justifiable," York said.

So far, York said, Richland One has disciplined three employees — making them reimburse the district — in addition to referring Braddy to law enforcement in November. York would not provide more details on those cases, calling them “confidential personnel matters.”

“The district goes above and beyond to ensure that we are good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” including by having an internal auditor on staff, York said.

Internal concerns

Still, the district’s internal auditor himself has raised concerns about how thoroughly Richland One's P-card transactions are inspected.

In his report, Washington noted a number of purchases appeared to have been personal in nature, including food receipts for less than $10 and a $182 Amazon order for cleaning supplies that were delivered to the employee’s house.

The audit, which studied spending in the year the coronavirus pandemic began, found some employees were using their district cards to purchase food and treats in the zip codes where they lived, not where they worked.

The audit was “unable to determine why or how these blocked transactions got through,” Washington wrote.

Washington also raised concerns about how closely district supervisors monitored their employees’ credit card statements.

Nearly a quarter of the district’s monthly statements were endorsed with stamped — not handwritten — signatures, a violation of district procedures. In one case, a supervisor’s handwritten signature didn’t match their previous endorsements.

Supervisors were late in signing off on monthly statements in nearly 40 percent of the cases reviewed. Cardholders let each other use their cards, purchased equipment worth more than $100 on their cards and sometimes split their purchases into multiple transactions to avoid the single-transaction limit of $1,500 — all of which violates district policy, Washington found.

Washington’s interviews with employees raised concerns that supervisors performed only a “cursory review that accepts cardholder purchases with minimal scrutiny,” he wrote.

Among of host of written recommendations, he suggested better training for both cardholders and their supervisors, reviewing which vendors should be banned, prohibiting food purchases on P-cards and disciplining repeat offenders. The district pledged to adopt most of those recommendations.

Credit cards may account for a tiny percentage of the district’s annual spending, Washington wrote, but “continuous non-compliance increases the risk of inappropriate purchases” and can attract scrutiny from both financial regulators and media outlets.

Harris, the board chairwoman, said Richland One should be applauded for empowering Washington to dig into its finances and suggest improvements. She said critics are always looking for a way to bring the district down, including by misconstruing Washington’s findings.

“We as a district have done an absolute great job in making sure that if there are issues and concerns, we are investigating them, we are putting checks and balances in place,” Harris said.

But some aren’t convinced, especially after hearing about the Braddy investigation.

“The district is supposed to have checks and balances along the way,” said King, who has served on the Richland One board since 2012. “It looks like at every single step there has been failure of oversight. … I can only imagine what other people are doing.”

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