Uncovered

The Post and Courier of Charleston has launched “Uncovered,” a project to cast new light on questionable government conduct, especially in smaller towns. The Charleston newspaper is working with local newspapers such as The Times and Democrat, leveraging The Post and Courier’s investigative resources with reporters who know their locales. Findings will be published simultaneously. For more on the project, visit https://www.postandcourier.com/uncovered/

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Editor’s Note: The Aiken Standard is one of 16 newspapers collaborating with The Post and Courier on the Uncovered investigative project.

WAGENER — A string of questionable money transfers and purchases in this tiny town’s fire department has spawned a county investigation and raised difficult questions about Wagener’s ability to manage taxpayer funds.

The State Law Enforcement Division already has an active probe underway into the Aiken County town’s finances. Wagener’s money management practices also have drawn scrutiny in recent years from the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

An Aiken Standard investigation has uncovered hundreds of pages of records that shed fresh light on money issues that have roiled Wagener’s fire department and divided the town. Among other things:

Questionable spending practices in the fire department include checks issued to family members of the former fire chief — some for school tuition, school books or emergency loans. Records also reveal purchases made from firearms suppliers and a membership fee paid to the National Rifle Association.

And fees collected specifically for the operation of the fire department were transferred to other town bank accounts without explanation. What the money was used for isn’t apparent.

The controversy has led to the dismissal of Fire Chief Mark Redd and his second-in-command, George Day. Redd has not responded to requests for comment, and Wagener Mayor Mike Miller is at a loss to explain how this all happened despite being in charge for more than a decade.

The fire department dispute is just the latest in a string of controversies arising from the town’s finances in recent years. Among other things, the town has found itself on the defensive for failing to properly insure town hall, neglecting to pay Wagener’s federal taxes on time and improperly using state money intended for crime victims to shore up other budget holes.

The Aiken Standard’s investigation into the town’s shaky handling of taxpayer money is part of a collaboration with The Post and Courier’s Uncovered project, which aims to expose misconduct and questionable government actions across South Carolina. The Aiken Standard is among 16 news outlets partnering on Uncovered.

The controversy raises fresh questions about the ability of some small towns to properly manage their finances with part-time officials at the helm and few professional staff members to guide them. Time and again in South Carolina, a lack of scrutiny and financial controls has led to allegations of mismanagement or worse.

In the past five years, two Allendale town officials and a county emergency supervisor went to jail on embezzlement charges. A town clerk in the tiny Upstate town of Lyman was convicted of siphoning $20,000 and using town credit cards to cover her son’s wedding expenses. And a police chief in Westminster pocketed $114,000 meant to pay for protective vests for his officers.

Roger LeDuc served as Wagener’s town administrator on a temporary, part-time basis from February 2019 until the spring of 2020. He told the Aiken Standard the town’s struggles are similar to those faced by many small municipalities.

“You’ve got mayors and (members of) councils that have never been involved in local government before,” said LeDuc, a former Aiken city manager. “They’ve never completed a budget, and they don’t know how to write up an ordinance or a resolution, so a number of them do get into difficulties.”

Fire department woes

Wagener traces its roots back to 1887, when it was known as Pinder Town or Gunter’s Crossroads. Like many small towns, its economy benefited greatly when a railroad line was built to connect it with nearby Batesburg.

The town’s name was changed to honor George Wagener, a Charleston merchant and president of a small railroad that eventually was absorbed by the Southern Railway.

Wagener’s economy has been strongly tied to agriculture since its beginning; the town was known for its fields of asparagus in the 1920s and 1930s. Many locals who don’t work in agriculture or the smattering of small, family-owned businesses must drive to Aiken or bigger locations for their livelihoods.

With the town’s population just under 800, according to the 2010 census, there isn’t a large tax base to draw from or money to waste.

Ongoing disputes over how the fire department was being run and what it was doing with its money intensified late in 2020. The major battle that followed has been prolonged, heated and public.

On one side is the mayor, the primary target in most of the attacks, and Town Council. On the other side are very vocal and social media-savvy supporters of the Wagener Fire Department’s former leaders.

It all came to a head in November with the suspensions and subsequent dismissals of the department’s top two officials, Redd and Day.

Memorandums from Miller and Town Council indicate the two men were fired for failing to turn over documents related to the fire department’s operation.

Those decisions created an uproar.

Redd’s and Day’s backers held a sit-in at the fire department and accused Miller of mismanagement. Their backers repeated those allegations and vented their anger on Facebook and Twitter. They begged Aiken County Council to intervene and award money to a new organization to handle fire service for the district.

Meantime, Day told the Aiken Standard in November that neither he nor Redd had ever mishandled fire department funds.

In February of this year, County Council unanimously passed a resolution that authorized County Administrator Clay Killian and his staff to launch an investigation. To date, the inquiry has not been completed.

Meanwhile, the clashes in Wagener continue.

Dennis Jackson is a former Wagener Fire Department captain who now serves as chief of the New Holland Volunteer Fire Department. Jackson, who still lives in the Wagener district, worries the controversy is harming the town’s reputation.

“There’s not going to be a winner coming out of this thing at all,” he said. “I think both sides have done stuff that is questionable.”

Transactions raise flags

Bank statements obtained by the Aiken Standard include information about a variety of unusual debit card purchases made by the fire department.

The amounts spent and the businesses where the purchases were made include the following:

$455.96 at OpticsPlanet, which sells rifle scopes and ammunition, in February 2013.

$309.99 at Wise Arms LLC, a firearms and accessories vendor, in January 2015.

$109.95 at Joe Bob Outfitters, which sells firearms and firearm accessories, in January 2015.

$112.95 at Palmetto State Armory, a firearms company, in March 2015.

$25 for a National Rifle Association membership in May 2015.

The town provided no receipts or documentation to the Aiken Standard to indicate what was purchased.

To Jackson, the New Holland fire chief, those transactions raise red flags. The NRA membership, in particular, would seem to have no connection to firefighting, he said.

The businesses sell items other than firearms and accessories, but Jackson said he would want proof that the purchases were fire department-related.

“There should be some documentation somewhere that says, ‘I bought flashlights’ or ‘I bought traffic vests’ or something like that,” he said.

The Wagener Fire Department’s bank statements also show numerous fire department debit card purchases from Amazon made between 2013 to 2020. Some totaled hundreds of dollars per month.

But no receipts from Amazon were included in the documents provided by the town of Wagener to the Aiken Standard.

Checks to family members

Wagener Fire Department spending records obtained by the Aiken Standard show several checks written to Redd’s family members. Sometimes Redd wrote checks to himself.

In many cases, on the copies of those checks, the memo lines are blank, so their purposes are a mystery.

Other materials received by the Aiken Standard from the town included “time/activity” sheets for Cody Redd, a son of the former fire chief. They show he was paid for work, including filling out fire department reports, cleaning the fire station, checking the fluids in fire trucks and performing other tasks.

“It’s not unusual for volunteer fire departments to pay incentives for people to go to fires and work at the fire station,” Killian, the county administrator, said. “Some fire departments, I think, will pay somebody to be there during the day (at the fire station). It’s considered a thank you, if you will, for volunteering, and it’s usually not a lot of money.”

But in Aiken County, Jackson said, most volunteer fire departments, including New Holland’s, don’t compensate their members directly with cash.

“They (the members) volunteer to be volunteers,” Jackson said.

Rewarding them with even a small amount of money “almost takes the volunteer part out of it,” Jackson added.

Among the documents given by Miller to the Aiken Standard on May 10 were copies of records from a check ledger that he said belonged to the fire department. Identified as “loans” or “emergency loans” were the following transactions:

$450 to Brodie Redd for “school books” on Sept. 17, 2007.

$500 to Cody Redd for “school tuition” on Jan. 17, 2008.

$500 to George Day, which was “approved by officers,” on March 9, 2011.

$500 to Mark Redd on Aug. 27, 2011.

$150 to Mark Redd on May 25, 2012.

$1,000 to Russell Redd on July 24, 2012.

$1,600 to Scottie and Brandy Redd for a “mission trip” on July 12, 2013.

$1,000 to Mark Redd on May 27, 2015.

$1,000 to Joseph M. (Mark) Redd for $1,000 on Jan. 7, 2016.

Brodie Redd, Russell Redd and Scottie Redd are all sons of Mark Redd.

When Mark Redd was reached by telephone, he told the Aiken Standard he was too busy to talk. He didn’t respond to two follow-up voicemail messages that were left.

Fire fees questioned

Aiken County’s main worry, according to Killian, is the possibility that fire fees paid by property owners in the Wagener Fire District haven’t been used for operational expenses such as equipment purchases, utilities, fuel for vehicles and firefighting supplies.

The county collects the fees for the volunteer fire departments within its boundaries by including them on property tax bills.

Killian said fees for the Wagener Fire Department are sent to the town.

As part of its investigation, the county had Wagener provide financial records from the town’s fire department.

The Aiken Standard obtained copies of those documents through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Miller also gave the newspaper additional documents May 10 and 24. Among them are Security Federal Bank statements for various accounts from 2011 to 2020.

They show more than $63,000 being transferred from the fire department’s checking account to the town’s General Fund account. There are also transfers from the General Fund account to the fire department’s account.

In addition, the statements show money moving between the fire department account and accounts for the Wagener Medical Center, a town park, and Wagener’s water and sewer department.

What is difficult to determine from those statements alone is what the transferred money was spent on or if the amounts transferred from the fire department account eventually were returned, Killian said.

“Just because the money was moved doesn’t mean it was used improperly,” he added. “It just means we need to know more about the transactions before we draw any conclusions.”

Seven months after the fire controversy erupted in Wagener, the county is still in the process of hiring an outside auditor to help sort out everything.

It is unclear whether that delay will also impede the probe SLED is conducting. Agency spokesman Tommy Crosby confirmed that SLED has an open investigation into the Town of Wagener’s finances, but he declined to discuss details.

Lacking a white-collar crime unit or a forensic auditor on staff, SLED often depends on local communities to hire an auditor to pinpoint possible financial irregularities, The Post and Courier has reported.

SLED Chief Mark Keel asked state lawmakers earlier this spring for $159,000 to hire a forensic auditor; the request still needs final budget approval.

Killian said he expects the auditor the county hires to “sit down with the town clerk or whoever does their books,” and maybe others, to ask questions and examine any receipts that might be available for unexplained fire department expenditures.

Even if fire fees were used to make purchases unrelated to fire department operations, the town and the Wagener Fire Department might not technically be in violation of the fire protection services contract with the county, according to Killian.

When those transactions occurred could be a factor.

Approximately two years ago, Killian said, the county revised its fire protection services contract.

“I think (the former contract) always implied (fire fee usage) was for fire purposes,” Killian said. “But I’m not sure that it necessarily spelled that out. That is still one of the things that we’ve got to sort out.”

While making changes to the previous contract, “we cleaned up some things, tightened up some things and, frankly, just tried to build in a little more oversight,” Killian said.

Trusted employees

When the Aiken Standard asked Miller why fire department funds were transferred to other bank accounts, he said he didn’t know. He was also unsure how much of that money was later returned to the fire department’s account.

Miller was elected Wagener’s mayor in 2009. For a long time, he said, he trusted Redd, Day, former Town Clerk Tina Salley and others to handle the financial duties associated with their positions without a lot of supervision.

“I think it was the responsibility of everyone (among the town’s elected officials) to keep their fingers on the pulse,” Miller said. “But we just sort of carried on with the way things had always been done.”

Even though there were some warning signs, Miller’s philosophy didn’t change until he opened mail that had been sent to Town Hall one day.

“I found some bills in there that I was concerned about,” Miller said. “They were way overdue.”

Miller began monitoring the town’s mail more closely. And what he saw led him and Town Council to begin questioning how the Wagener Fire Department was using its money.

“I found all sorts of interesting things,” Miller said.

Among other things, he found copies of several Wagener Fire Department checks for travel and training expenses. All had been written for even amounts, and some were for $1,000 or more.

“That’s not normal,” Miller said.

He also saw some checks with his signature that he believed had been forged.

When Miller and Town Council made demands for more information, Redd and Day “absolutely refused to cooperate,” Miller said.

No one from the fire department showed up when Miller and council called a July 2018 meeting with the chief to discuss the department’s future, records show.

At least twice last year, according to the mayor, he and Town Council member and Mayor Pro Tempore George Smith tried to meet with Redd and Day prior to their dismissals.

“They were notified in writing,” Miller said. “The first time they called to say they couldn’t make it. The second time they didn’t call and they didn’t show up.”

Later, Town Council scheduled an executive session that focused on the fire department.

Redd and Day, accompanied by fellow firefighter Logan Musser, attended that meeting, but weren’t at all helpful, Miller reported.

“We gave them a list of documents that we wanted and they showed up with no documents,” the mayor said. “When we asked them questions, they just didn’t answer.”

The Aiken Standard tried to get comments from Wagener Town Council members, but they didn’t respond to inquiries.

“I spoke with the Council members and all are understandably/justifiably a bit reluctant to speak out regarding our current ‘situation,’ ” Miller wrote in an email sent to the Aiken Standard on May 24.

SLED investigation

This isn’t the first time Miller has called in SLED to review financial irregularities in his town.

In the fall of 2017, Miller sent a written request to the agency to conduct “an investigation of possible embezzlement of funds” by Salley, the town clerk.

Miller identified two checks signed by Salley in 2013 as being suspicious, according to SLED records obtained through an open records request.

The check amounts were $44,577.93 and $27,316.56, and the money involved was in the town of Wagener’s Capital Project Sales Tax bank account, according to SLED.

Salley wrote one of the checks to herself and made the other payable to cash, records show.

SLED determined that Salley had purchased cashier’s checks to pay the town’s bills after it ran short of checks for its account, a case status report stated.

“Therefore, no crime was committed,” the report concluded.

SLED closed the case on Jan. 8, 2019.

According to SLED records, the FBI also was conducting a probe in Wagener — which included a forensic audit — during SLED’s investigation, and the two agencies worked together.

“We really can’t deny or confirm an actual, specific FBI investigation,” said Don Wood, the public affairs officer for the FBI’s field office in Columbia.

He recommended that the newspaper file a FOIA request, and the Aiken Standard did so May 18.

Salley spoke briefly on the record to the Aiken Standard.

“I was investigated by SLED and the conclusion was that there was no wrongdoing on my part,” she said, adding that the FBI came to the same conclusion.

‘Buck stops with you, Mr. Mayor’

Salley’s son, Christopher, organized November’s sit-in at Wagener Fire Department. He contends Miller is the problem in Wagener and has announced his plans to run for mayor this year.

In a Facebook Live video created May 17, he said Redd and Day were ousted “because they didn’t like what the mayor was doing and the mayor didn’t agree with them.”

Christopher Salley also criticized Miller for failing to keep track of Wagener’s finances.

“If you don’t know what’s going on and if your (Town) Council doesn’t know what’s going on, then how’s anybody else supposed to know what’s going on? They don’t, (and) you won’t tell us,” he said.

“The buck stops with you, Mr. Mayor,” Christopher Salley said in the video.

Salley could not be reached for comment for this article. His mother said she would pass along a request for an interview, but the Aiken Standard didn’t hear from him prior to publication.

But according to New Holland’s Jackson, disagreements between the town and its fire department are nothing new, and Miller isn’t the only mayor to come under fire as a result.

In 2003, the Aiken Standard reported that Redd and “six other fire department officers” resigned from their positions to protest the lack of financial support from the town. They also said they feared for their and other firefighters’ safety because their equipment was outdated, but indicated they would help in case of an emergency.

Mark Redd later was reinstated as fire chief.

Even though he didn’t agree with Redd’s decision to step down in protest 18 years ago, Jackson described the former Wagener fire chief as a “good firefighter” and said, “I respect him.”

New procedures in place

Following Redd and Day’s dismissals last year, the department lost two-thirds of its roster, and a proposal to merge the Wagener Fire Department with the New Holland Volunteer Fire Department collapsed.

David Watson became Wagener’s new chief in February. The department now has 15 firefighters on staff, and he hopes to grow that number to 50 by December. He also wants to build another fire station, Watson told the Aiken Standard.

But Watson also faces some controls put in place after his predecessor’s departure. When he needs the fire department’s debit card to pay for something, he must go to Town Hall to get it and then return it with a receipt.

There is a gas card that Watson keeps with him so that firetrucks can be refueled in a timely manner.

Miller, meanwhile, is eager to find out the results of the county’s investigation into fire fee usage in the Wagener Fire District and hopes it won’t take much longer to complete.

“I want it cleared up so that we can move forward,” he said.

For more on the UNCOVERED project, visit https://www.postandcourier.com/uncovered/

This article originally ran on thetandd.com.

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