S.C. Attorney General ends review of York Co. museum foundation, takes no action

jself@heraldonline.comSeptember 13, 2012 

The state attorney general has closed the books on its review of York County’s museum foundation and will take no immediate action--leaving foundation leaders looking forward.

Assistant attorney general Mary Frances Jowers notified the lawyer for the Culture and Heritage Foundation in a brief letter dated Friday.

“Following the review, the Office is closing the file without taking formal action at this time,” Jowers wrote to James Sheedy. A spokesman for the Attorney General’s office declined further comment.

The state’s inquiry followed mounting questions from county and museum leaders about the foundation’s handling of donated land along the Catawba River and Sutton Road in Fort Mill.

“We’re not at all surprised at the results,” said Bill Easley, the foundation’s chairman. “We never had anything to hide. It was a long, very thorough look at all of our activities and our financial worth, and they did a very thorough and professional job.

“We’ve been looking forward to moving on to better things.”

The foundation was created to support the county’s Culture and Heritage Museums, which include Historic Brattonsville in McConnells, the Museum of York County and the Main Street Children’s Museum in Rock Hill, and the McCelvey Center in York.

The attorney general’s office began its inquiry into the foundation’s finances after the S.C. Secretary of State, conducting its own investigation, found "issues that were of concern" that fell beyond that office’s authority. The Secretary of State’s authority in this case was limited to laws governing the solicitation of charitable funds.

An attorney with the secretary of state’s office would not share details about that agency’s concerns, aside from noting a $6.5 million drop in the foundation’s reported assets from one year’s tax returns to the next.

Easley attributed the drop in assets to an accounting adjustment--moving the assets from the foundation’s tax form to that of a subsidiary.

The inquiry followed questions raised by local officials about 400 acres of donated land and a failed development deal that left one of the foundation’s subsidiaries owing $3.8 million on the property. More than $1 million is still owed, Easley said.

The subsidiary, a for-profit corporation called Sustainable Development Group, was formed to manage and develop the donated land for the purpose of raising money to build a new county museum and to support museum programs.

Learning of the debt, The Herald and community and museum leaders began asking questions about how money on the project was spent. The foundation provided The Herald with financial audits and tax documents, but few details on financial transactions beyond summaries of expenses.

“I’m glad (the attorney general) didn’t find anything criminal,” said S.C. Rep. Ralph Norman, a Rock Hill developer who encouraged the York County Council to push the foundation for an audit. Norman also contacted the Secretary of State’s office and the attorney general’s office about his concerns.

Norman said questions remain about how money was spent on the land. He plans to file a formal request to the state agencies to release information to the museum’s governing board, which has members who’ve also sought answers from the foundation about its finances.

David Plexico, chairman of the museum commission, agreed that no criminal charges means “good news,” but the “bad news is we still don't have an answer as to where the money went.”

Plexico said the foundation, which has raised money in the name of the museums, hasn’t provided the museum commission with answers to their questions, which could hinder fundraising moving forward.

Easley says foundation leaders have already made several presentations on the matter.

Public concerns about the foundation emerged alongside criticism of the museum’s former management. County leaders dismissed and replaced the museum’s entire governing board, and longtime museum director Van Shields resigned. Other long-time museum leaders either lost their jobs or quit. Shields, who now directs a museum in Pittsfield, Mass., did not return a phone message Thursday.

Easley said he would not be willing to share with The Herald details of what the foundation sent to the attorney general’s office.

“We can put this behind us now, and not spend our time and money working on these kinds of things,” he said.

The foundation is focused on paying off its debt, Easley said. Much of it was paid after selling a section of the donated land to Carolinas HealthCare System, which plans to build a hospital there.

The foundation’s board also would like to revive plans for fundraising for the museums, which have been on hold, he said.

“This has been a dead period while we’ve tried to wrestle with all these accusations. We have to put this behind us.”

A campaign issue

Questions about the foundation have followed Rock Hill businessman Gary Williams in his campaign for York County Council. Williams is a foundation board member who once managed the donated land.

Williams, the owner of a debt collection agency, is challenging York County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell, a Rock Hill eye doctor, for the council’s District 6 seat representing northern Rock Hill and Newport.

Williams has criticized Blackwell and the council for harming the museums with the shake-up of leadership.

Williams said the county and state agencies wasted time and taxpayer money looking into the foundation.

“This verifies what I've been saying for the last eight or nine months. It's time for a new kind of leadership that will bring this community back together, grow our economy, and create new jobs,” Williams said.

Blackwell said Thursday that “while the attorney general’s office has decided not to take any action at this time, I think it appeared to a lot of people that money was wasted.”

He pointed to questions raised by museum leaders about why the foundation’s fundraising expenses reported on their tax forms sometimes exceeded money raised. Foundation leaders attributed the difference to pledged donations that weren’t paid and were taken off the books.

Blackwell said that with elections coming up, he’s “glad to see people paying attention to spending these days and trying to make sure money isn't wasted at the county level. I'm doing my part...and making sure there’s 100 percent transparency.”

Jamie Self 803-329-4062

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