November 28, 2014

Plan to move aging sub to Tennessee has support, but is it enough?

The U.S.S. Clamagore has been closed to the public for more than two years

The U.S.S. Clamagore has been closed to the public for more than two years (Image: Patriots Point)

A group hoping to move a Cold War-era submarine from the Charleston Harbor to Tennessee is racing against the clock before the aging sub is either sunk to form a reef or is scrapped.

Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant revealed back in 2012 that it could no longer afford to maintain the submarine USS Clamagore. The museum had originally planned to scuttle the vehicle off the Florida coast, but has pushed back the date to give preservation groups enough time to find a new home and enough resources to maintain the 69-year-old vessel.

The organization “Friends of the Clamagore” is working on a last-ditch, longshot effort to bring the sub to Knoxville as part of a new museum. But they face a tall order: the ship needs approximately $5 million in repairs, a new location to dock it, a long-term operating plan, and a way to transport the 311-foot vessel from the Cooper River to the Tennessee River more than 400 land-miles away.

The group’s organizer Josh Richardson said they have cleared the first step: getting the support of local leaders. He presented a letter from Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett expressing support for the project.

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Moncks Corner emergency room settles after refusing to treat prisoner

A Berkeley County health provider has reached a $40,000 settlement with the federal government to resolve an allegation that doctors failed to properly treat a prisoner at one of its hospitals.

The Charleston Post & Courier first reported the settlement on Tuesday. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), staff at Trident Health Emergency Room denied treatment to a male prisoner in February 2012 because the hospital had a ‘no trespass’ order against him. EMS then took the patient to a nearby hospital, and Trident never provided a medical screening examination of the patient, according to HHS documents.

The settlement comes as a result of the federal Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act that requires hospitals to treat emergency room patients, regardless of their ability to pay.

The announcement by the Inspector General’s Office at HHS did not indicate the prisoner’s fate nor indicate the other hospital that did treat him. A spokeswoman at Trident also did not know whether the patient survived, saying it was a two-year-old case.

As part of the settlement, Trident Health did not admit any liability in the incident and has contested the HHS allegations. Trident Health self-reported the potential violation, the spokeswoman told the Post & Courier.

After a decade, Port Royal terminal sale approved

The shuttered former Port of Port Royal (Image: Bob Bender/SC Dept of Health and Environmental Control)

The shuttered former Port of Port Royal (Image: Bob Bender/SC Dept of Health and Environmental Control)

South Carolina’s top financial panel on Wednesday approved the sale of a former port terminal in Beaufort County.

The Budget & Control Board gave its unanimous vote for the $15.4 million sale of the 317-acre Port Royal property to a Greenville developer. The vote came with no public debate, although the board did go into executive session to discuss some sections of the contract with Furman Investment Advisory Services.

The waterfront property near the center of Port Royal town had sat vacant ever since the General Assembly voted to close it in 2004. The Ports Authority had failed to reach a deal with three different potential buyers over the past eight years. Frustrated with the lack of progress, Beaufort County legislators eventually convinced the House and Senate to pass a new law that set a deadline for the Ports Authority to either sell the land by June 2015, or put the property up for auction.

That law allowed the Ports Authority to sell the property at less than its appraised value, if necessary. The agency still has not publicly said what that value is, citing the unfinished contract situation. In fact, when State Treasurer Curtis Loftis started to ask about the appraisal during Wednesday’s meeting, but was told his question was better suited for the executive session that is off-limits to the public.

Earlier this month, a local developer and other Port Royal residents sued the Ports Authority, claiming the agency had not acted as good stewards of the property. The lawsuit also claimed Beaufort County and the town had lost more than $7 million in property taxes while the land remained in state hands.

After the meeting, the Associated Press reports the governor told reporters the sale was in line with her goal of divesting surplus state property. “I have said for a long time that we don’t need to be in the real estate business,” she told reporters.

A Ports Authority spokeswoman said the contract will likely be finalized in the spring, as the developer has a 150-day due diligence period and 30 more days after that to close. Furman has not detailed its plans for the site, saying only that it will work with the town on a development plan .

State steps in after small business insurance co-op becomes insolvent

SCHCState officials say a network that offers health insurance coverage to roughly 500 small businesses has become insolvent and can no longer pay claims for its members.

The South Carolina Health Cooperative (SCHC) was created in 2012 as a way for small businesses to cover health insurance costs for more than 4,500 of their employees. However, the state Department of Insurance said Tuesday that its own examination of the Cooperative last month found serious financial issues and that the company’s reserve assets were likely fraudulent.

“The premiums they were charging were not sufficient enough to sustain payment of claims that were coming in,” agency director Raymond Farmer told South Carolina Radio Network. Worse, he said the cooperative only had two assets — two standby letters of credit totaling $8 million– which were security to pay claims if needed. But both letters were fraudulent.

Farmer said  does not know how the cooperative obtained the fraudulent letters of credit.

The SCHC is private and is not directly affiliated with the state, but it is regulated and licensed as a rare insurance form known as Multiple Employer Welfare Arrangement (MEWA).

The Department of Insurance took over SCHC’s operations last month following a vote by the cooperative’s board of directors. The agency is has filed a petition to be appointed the rehabilitator of the company. If the Richland County Court of Common Pleas agrees, the rehabilitation period will be used to find a new insurer to help cover the member businesses. The rehab plan would also require the new plan to be self-sufficient. In the meantime, he recommends that beneficiaries work to get their own health insurance or other benefits immediately.

A call to the SCHC hotline was not immediately returned. The cooperative launched in 2010 to much fanfare, but did not start offering plans for another two years. The co-op’s CEO at the time Cooper Littlejohn received brief national attention as a 20-year-old Georgia Tech student. One state lawmaker had praised him for the innovative idea, calling it the new co-op a “breakthrough in cost containment.”

Matt Long contributed to this report

SLED report: Harrell paid self for flights to amusement park, baseball tournament

Bobby Harrell embraces his wife a few minutes after pleading guilty to six ethics counts last month

Bobby Harrell embraces his wife a few minutes after pleading guilty to six ethics counts last month

State police have now released their investigative report into former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, nearly one year after its completion led to charges against one of the most powerful men in the Statehouse.

The final eight pages of the report are blacked out, which a State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) spokesman said followed state laws allowing law enforcement to withhold information that could eventually be “used in a prospective law enforcement action.”

Previously, First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe — whose office prosecuted Harrell this year — would not say if the investigation had been expanded into other lawmakers or Statehouse personnel. However, part of the ex-Speaker’s plea deal would require him to act as an informant or witness in further proceedings.

SLED began investigating Harrell’s finances in 2013 after the State Attorney General’s Office forwarded a complaint from Ashley Landess, the president of the libertarian thinktank South Carolina Policy Council. SLED finished its report in late 2013. Attorney General Alan Wilson then turned it over as evidence for the State Grand Jury in January of this year. That sparked a protracted court battle between Harrell and the Attorney General that eventually led Wilson to recuse himself in favor of Pascoe.

In September, a second grand jury eventually returned ten indictments against the Speaker. Harrell pleaded guilty to six counts of use of campaign funds for personal expenses last month and was sentenced to six years in prison, suspended in favor of three years probation with a $30,000 fine. He also resigned his seat in the House.

The SLED report focused largely on discrepancies with how Harrell reported his campaign expenses, versus what his financial records actually showed. Investigators also revealed dozens of interviews conducted with Harrell and his staff that were not revealed in court.

More details were also given about flights that Harrell took in his private plane and charged to his campaign account. Most of the flights appeared to be for legitimate reasons, but SLED agents noted issues in how the Speaker (who also acted as pilot) calculated his own reimbursement rate.

During one of those trips, investigators said Harrell flew his plane to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a 2009 high school baseball tournament. He charged his campaign account $3,800 for the flight, citing only “legislative travel.” When investigators asked how the trip served state business, the report said Harrell called it a “see and be seen trip” with constituents. The report also reveals a previously unreported flight to the June 2010 opening of the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Universal Studios amusement park in Orlando, Florida. The Wizarding World opening coincided with the dates of the 2010 National Speakers Conference that Harrell reported attending in Annapolis, MD at the same time.

When he was asked about the Orlando trip, Harrell provided a copy of an invitation to the event as his itinerary. The invitation did not indicate a name. Harrell also told investigators that he went on the trip to meet “with film company executives in regard to film legislation that was under consideration” at the time. The report said the Speaker did not provide any documentation indicating who the film company executives were or where and when the meeting took place.

On his documents, Harrell also listed trips to legislative conferences or committee meetings in Sea Island, GA; Key Biscayne, FL; Washington, DC; Kiawah Island, SC; Charleston; San Francisco, CA; Anchorage, Alaska; and Dublin, Ireland from 2009 to 2012.

Harrell’s spokesman at the time Greg Foster said Harrell was allowed by state law to use campaign funds to pay for travel as an ordinary expense of his office. This allowed the Speaker to use campaign funds instead of state funds for travel expenses. Foster further said that Harrell was trying to be elected as either president or chairman of the Southern Legislative Conference at the time. Foster argued Harrell would have tried hosting conferences in Charleston to benefit the local economy if he had been elected.

The report also noted more than $22,000 paid to E Systems Solutions, a company that set up wireless access for Harrell’s offices. But the report also noted E Systems was paid to set up his wife’s computer, repair computers inside the home, and connect a Nintendo Wii to the wireless network.

The report also examined nearly $23,000 in discrepancies that Harrell repaid his campaign fund in 2012 (after a critical Charleston Post & Courier report). The report noted the Speaker cut himself a check on at least nine occasions using campaign funds, but the expenditure reports he provided would be up to a thousand dollars lower than the checks he wrote. Neither the checks nor the E Systems payments were part of the final indictments against Harrell.