by Michael Rigby
Officials at South Carolina's Lieber Correctional Institution (LCI) were supposed to be supplying free prison labor to a charity that builds portable housing for the elderly. Instead, they were stealing building materials and trying to extort money from the charity's director, according to lawsuits filed by two former employees.
When the corruption was exposed, LCI officials apparently used intimidation and lies to hinder the investigations. An audit by the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) supported the allegations, but two county solicitors still declined to prosecute. The FBI has now been asked to investigate.
From June 1999 until October 2001, prison officials assisted the United Methodist Relief Center, a Mount Pleasant-based charity, with its elderly housing program. LCI supplied prison labor to construct the wood houses on mobile home frames. The charity provided the materials. To speed things along, LCI officials were authorized to make the necessary purchases on the Relief Center's Lowe's account.
Soon after the program began, Roger Goodman, a carpentry and plumbing teacher at the prison, said his supervisor told him to order thousands of dollars worth of tools on the charity's account and to over-purchase building materials. (The names of prison officials are conspicuously absent in media accounts.) When he refused, said Goodman, another teacher was added to order the extra supplies.
Around that time, the same supervisor who asked Goodman to over-order supplies asked Pat Goss, executive director of the United Methodist Relief Center, for approximately $7,000 to cover labor costs. Goss refused. I felt like that if he got that," said Goss in a deposition in Goodman's lawsuit, that he'd be back for more.
After that, say Goodman and Marguerite Tomasino--a former employee of the prison's internal affairs division and the plaintiff in a second lawsuit--other LCI officials illicitly purchased materials on the charity's tab. In her deposition, Goss said that when she complained, a senior LCI official requested a private meeting with her, alone, at the prison. Goss declined the invitation. Tomasino said she cautioned her not to go.
Goss later told investigators that a mysterious man claiming to be investigating the issue for the Department of Corrections (DOC) had showed up at the charity. After handing her a business card with the logo marked out, the man said he was a former FBI agent and asked her to call him with information.
In an interview with the Charleston Post and Courier on August 16, 2004, Tomasino said her investigation revealed that of the three houses built by prisoners, the two overseen by Goodman came in close to budget but the one supervised by the other teacher cost an additional $6,500. Goodman said he believes Tomasino's investigation supported the over-purchasing allegations. Obviously, if they were ordering more than our policy, a crime was committed," he said.
Signs of a cover-up abound. Tomasino said she was later told by her supervisor that she couldn't interview ranking prison officials and was instructed to close her investigation. Around that time, said Goodman, prison officials abruptly cancelled the project.
What's more, Tomasino's internal affairs report was apparently doctored before it was given to SLED. According to attorney Chalmers Johnson of Charleston, who is working on the Goodman and Tomasino lawsuits as well as one brought by another internal affairs investigator, the report SLED received was missing the names of ranking LCI officials and the content had been altered.
Two versions of Tomasino's report have emerged. The first mentions a letter from Goss that said there may be a conspiracy to cover up misappropriation of materials purchased" on the Relief Center's account.
The second--the version SLED received--included an additional statement that said, When interviewed Goss stated that she did not personally believe there was any conspiracy to cover up a misappropriation of funds." Goss denied ever saying that in her deposition and in her interview with the Post and Courier, noting that even prisoners wrote to the charity apologizing for what happened. We did have materials that were inappropriately ordered and used," Goss said. I did report that to the authorities and expected them to investigate it.
Prison officials eventually reimbursed the charity with materials of comparable value to what was stolen, but Goss had to pick up the materials herself. Goss said that a ranking LCI official implied that this squared their accounts--to which she replied, If you rob a bank and you bring the money back, did you still rob the bank?
In 2002, Goodman and Tomasino quit and filed lawsuits alleging constructive discharge. Goodman said he received a poor performance review after reporting the misconduct and was told he could be fired. Tomasino said too many of her investigations had been stopped or ignored. This was the one that broke the camel's back," she said.
A subsequent 2003 SLED investigation supported the claims of Goodman, Tomasino, and Goss. One prisoner told SLED investigators that prisoners were ordered to use the charity's wood to build furniture for a prison official's personal use. Others alleged that prison officials ordered expensive materials for the charity's houses, then substituted cheaper supplies instead. And when a job called for 4 sheets of plywood, prison officials sometimes ordered 7 or 8. One prisoner told SLED agents that prison officials used some of the wood to make themselves furniture, gun racks, hutches, and cabinets.
SLED agents further found that then-DOC director William Catoe had originally told Goss that he would waive the normal 10% surcharge--which the prison typically added to a project's material costs to compensate the prison for its labor--since it was for charity. However, audits from Tomasino and the Relief Center found that in many instances over-ordering resulted in costs of 25% above what was required.
The SLED investigation uncovered numerous other examples of official malfeasance at LCI. SLED agents said they found that the same LCI official who had authorized the over-purchasing of supplies for the housing project had paid to have prisoners completely rebuild three of his cars--one of them a Porsche 914--at a cost of just $50 per car. That same official said he also had prisoners build a wooden model of a World War I tank for his office. Prisoners told SLED agents that the man used prisoners to build Civil War chess pieces, chess boards, and boxes that he then sold.
Jon Ozmin, director of the DOC, said prison officials aren't allowed to take advantage of prisoner labor for profit. To have an employee direct an inmate to make something and then him turn around and profit from it would be against policy," he said.
None of the three men investigated by SLED still work for the DOC. Two were laid off due to budget cuts. The other retired.
The SLED audit lasted six months and resulted in a report that was hundreds of pages thick, which the agency turned over to the Dorchestor and Berkley County solicitors. They declined to prosecute.
Former Dorchestor County Solicitor Walter Bailey said the allegations were not conclusive enough to warrant trial. There was some smoke there, but I didn't see the substance to it," Bailey said. If we could have found that someone had misappropriated money, we would have prosecuted. But it was too murky, and the case was filled with personality conflicts." Bailey didn't say if he also refused to prosecute other crimes because they were murky" or contained personality conflicts.
Tomasino said the case was solid and that if Bailey chose not to prosecute it was only because evidence from her investigation disappeared after she left the DOC. They quashed the report, just as they did all the sex and drugs cases I investigated," she said.
In the two years since filing his lawsuit, Goodman and Johnson have compiled nearly 600 pages of documentation related to the case. On August 16, 2004, they forwarded that information to Governor Mark Sanford, asking him to enforce the law. But rather than review the report, Sanford merely forwarded it to officials at SLED and the DOC.
Johnson said the decision illustrates a sorry pattern in state government. This is a self-perpetuating system," said Johnson. Every time someone with the capacity to do something about this comes along, it instead gets passed back to the people who should be investigated to decide for themselves if they've done something wrong.
Goodman was outraged by the Governor's action, saying it was like asking the fox to guard the henhouse. If South Carolina won't enforce its own laws, the federal government has the authority to step in," he said. Evidently the people in the governor's office didn't read my information." Four days later, Goodman filed a formal complaint with the FBI alleging public corruption.
Goodman and Tomasino say prosecutors might reevaluate their decision not to prosecute if allowed to view all the evidence. Still, Goodman thinks it will take FBI involvement to bring charges against prison officials.
Source: Charleston Post and Courier
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