Ethics agency examines credit card incident

Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission Chairman Kevin Hollinshead is being investigated by the State Ethics Commission after using a county credit card to buy $213 worth of tickets to an Indianapolis Colts game, an upgrade to first class and about $300 in other personal charges during a September trip to Indiana.

He later wrote the county a $571.57 check to cover those expenses, but records obtained by The Post and Courier show it bounced.

Hollinshead said Thursday he used the county credit card because his wallet was stolen during the trip, and he plans to reimburse the county soon.

"That's in the works," he said. "I didn't do anything wrong, so I'm not sweating it."

Commissioners discussed the incident behind closed doors earlier this month, and they later voted to refer the matter to the Ethics Commission, the state agency in charge of ensuring that public officials don't misuse their office for personal gain.

Ethics complaints are normally kept in confidence until the commission decides if the matter warrants a public rebuke or, in the most serious cases, attention from a solicitor.

No one from the Ethics Commission was available this week for comment.

The discovery of Hollinshead's credit card charges has elevated the tension within the agency that operates the county's regional parks.

Ever since the agency received $36 million in half-cent sales tax proceeds to buy more land, the normally staid board has been anything but. Commissioners have clashed over land deals, such as the $10 million purchase of the 420-acre Harmony Hall tract in Meggett. Some felt $10 million was too much money for property in a part of the county where the PRC already had significant holdings.

While the commissioners didn't publicly discuss Hollinshead's travel expenses, they later debated whether to hold a new election for chairman.

The commission normally elects a chairman in July but didn't this year because several members, including Hollinshead, were not reappointed. They continue to serve indefinitely because of a recent S.C. Supreme Court ruling that raises a question about whether County Council or state lawmakers should appoint them. Neither group has acted.

The commissioners ultimately postponed their chairman election until they review their bylaws and approach the Charleston County Legislative Delegation to clarify their status.

The discovery of Hollinshead's credit card charges comes as some commissioners already were concerned about apparent attempts to steer PRC contracts to certain firms.

At its November board meeting, commissioners squabbled over a consulting contract for a land deal involving Jenkins Institute for Children. Commissioner Robert New asked if any commissioners had solicited business for, or had any business relationship with, any of the consultants under consideration.

Hollinshead laughed at New's remark, but New asked the commissioners to answer yes or no to his question. Several quickly said "no" but others, including Hollinshead, did not answer.

Eleven firms originally sought the contract, and some commissioners complained they weren't evaluated equally, at least not at first.

New said that several people involved in the evaluation had scored one firm with a perfect score, and gave the other firms zeroes. "Obviously, this process has been politicized," he said. "This does not pass the smell test." The commission later agreed to bring four or five firms in for interviews.

Another issue splitting the board is whether the agency is being aggressive enough in hiring and promoting minorities and contracting with minority firms.

As commissioners started to debate whether to elect a new chairman, Hollinshead raised the issue of diversity. "If we're going to be about diversity, we're going to have to do a better job about including everybody," he said. "We don't encourage our vendors to partner with anyone who is not like them."

Hollinshead and Commissioners Aaron Polkey and Nathaniel Brown voted against adding the chairman election to the agenda, while Commissioners New, Mark Kearns, John Dodds and Lisa King voted to do so. The election itself was postponed after Dodds agreed to delay it.

Hollinshead said Thursday he is preparing a letter detailing New's misconduct in office. Hollinshead declined to go into details and said he expected to release the letter next month.

"My letter is going to come from my attorney in writing and it's going to go to the Ethics Commission, and you'll see," he said. "I've got documentation." New could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The commission also may have violated the Freedom of Information Act by discussing Hollinshead's travel in closed session, said Jay Bender, a lawyer for the S.C. Press Association.

"If they were, in fact, in there asking a commissioner about expenditures, that's not appropriate for executive session in the first place," Bender said. The Post and Courier had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the documents showing all commissioners' recent travel expenses.

David Slade contributed to this report. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or at rbehre@postandcourier.com.