By Mickey Lamm
Read Part 1 Here – Thousands Spent On Snacks, Food
Read Part 2 Here – Hiring Of Chairman’s Daughter
Read Part 3 Here – County Visitors Bureau President: “I’m Not Breaking Any Laws. This Is How We Do Business…”
The Daily Record and WTSB have uncovered several potential issues at the Johnston County Visitors Bureau (Johnston County Visitors Bureau) including thousands of taxpayer dollars spent at Wal-Mart on snacks, thousands spent on meals and gifts for themselves, and the hiring of the board chairman’s daughter to the Johnston County Visitors Bureau staff.
In our last of a four part series on the Johnston County Visitors Bureau, The Daily Record and WTSB investigate business relations between the Johnston County Visitors Bureau and a board member who resigned during our investigation.
When first appointed to the Johnston County Visitors Bureau, Warren Stancil co-owned two billboard companies, Interstate and Patriot, which have contracts with the Johnston County Visitors Bureau. In May 2015, while still serving on the Board, he purchased the inventory of two other companies that had existing contracts with the Johnston County Visitors Bureau, Gold Rock Signs and Bradley Outdoor Advertising.
Stancil-owned billboard companies now receive approximately 82 percent of Johnston County Visitors Bureau’s billboard advertising dollars.
Johnston County Visitors Bureau President Cites Policy That Doesn’t Exist
On August 10th, Bailey-Taylor said Johnston County government had a policy allowing board members like Stancil to serve as long as they refrain from casting a vote. When asked to provide a copy of the policy, she could not. Three days later, she said, “I did find an email referencing a conversation, but no written policy.”
WTSB News learned that conversation was between Bailey-Taylor and Board of Commissioners Clerk Paula Woodard, who is not an attorney, asking Woodard her personal opinion about the appointment. County Manager Rick Hester said neither he or Woodard had recollection the county attorney had been contacted regarding this matter.
Johnston County Visitors Bureau Chairman Knew Of Potential Conflict
Ernie Brame, Johnston County Visitors Bureau Board Chairman said he encouraged Stancil to apply to the Johnston County Visitors Bureau Board. “I was the one that asked him to come on the board. I told him he could not vote on anything that had anything to do with his business or competing business as such. I was not aware that it would violate conflict of interest.” But in the same interview, Brame said, “It looks like it may be a violation.”
Stancil told WTSB News he also asked Bailey-Taylor and Brame before joining the Johnston County Visitors Bureau board if there was a conflict of interest. “When they presented the idea of me being on the board I say “Hey, what about conflict of interest?” and they said we don’t think so. We are going to ask the county attorney about it. From what I understood the county attorney said that if I didn’t participate in any billboard related votes then it was not a problem.”
Stancil resigned Aug. 13 after Donna Bailey-Taylor consulted an attorney who expressed concern about a potential conflict of interest.
“We thought it was OK for him to join the board, but we did have to get a ruling from the School of Government and legal counsel and Mr. Stancil resigned,” Bailey-Taylor said. However, Bailey-Taylor apparently did not solicit a legal opinion until the media inquiry almost a year after his appointment. It is unknown why she did not seek the ruling prior to Stancil’s appointment.
Mr. Stancil said he made it clear when he joined the board that he didn’t want to cause any conflict. “I made it clear when I joined, I don’t want this to be a conflict, I don’t want to be involved in billboards discussion or any votes regarding that,” he said. “I was on the board because I’m in advertising and promotions and that’s essentially what (the Johnston County Visitors Bureau) does. It’s hard to get people who have some kind of background in marketing to be on that board.”
Mr. Stancil said he was never involved in any discussion regarding billboards.
“It’s important to understand, I didn’t sign any contracts while I was on the board or vote on anything, I wasn’t involved in any kind of conflict when I was on the board,” he said. “In the very beginning, I said, ‘If this is a problem, I’d be glad to get off the board.’ I was volunteering my time to better my community.”
Criminal Statute Prevents Officials From Benefiting From Contracts
There is a criminal statute that prohibits someone elected or appointed to an agency from “deriving a direct benefit” from a contract. To derive a direct benefit, according to the Freyda Bluestein from the UNC School of Government, a board member must own more than 50 percent of a company and receive any income or commission directly from the contract.
The statute reads “no public officer who will derive a direct benefit from a contract … may deliberate or vote on the contract or attempt to influence any other person who is involved … in the contract.”
When asked, Stancil declined to say if he owned more than 50% in any of his billboard companies. “I have a substantial interest in Interstate and Patriot and that is all I will share.”
Stancil did say he has 8 billboards in Johnston County he leases to the Johnston County Visitors Bureau at a cost of $350 to $1,250 each per month. Others are located outside the county.
Stancil said he was never told by Bailey-Taylor, Brame or any of the Johnston County Visitors Bureau staff, about any local or state requirements. A receipt shows his orientation was a luncheon paid for by taxpayers at a local restaurant.
Board Member Receives Majority Of Business
According to an accounts payable report provided by Johnston County Finance Director Chad McLamb, the Johnston County Visitors Bureau spent approximately $144,000 on billboard advertising between July 2014 and June 2015.
With his latest acquisitions, Stancil-owned billboard companies will now receive approximately 82 percent of the Johnston County Visitors Bureau’s billboard advertising dollars or about $119,210 a year.
County Commissioners Made Appointment
Mr. Stancil was appointed by the Johnston County Board of Commissioners in October 2014. In Stancil’s application, he listed he was employed by Interstate Outdoor, Inc. but did not indicate he was a co-owner or officer with the company. “I have a passion for our county and really appreciate what the travel and tourism authority does for our county” he wrote.
Johnston County Manager Rick Hester told WTSB News both he and County Commissioner Chairman Tony Braswell were not aware of the business relationship between Stancil and the Johnston County Visitors Bureau until July 2015.
“Those types of situations do raise questions and concerns,” the county manager said. “Business relationships with Board members are generally not allowed due to code of ethics, by-laws of organizations and NC general statutes.”
Johnston County Visitors Bureau bylaws clearly state, “No commissioner, officer, agent or employee of the Bureau or any political subdivision thereof, shall be interested either directly or indirectly in any contract with the Bureau.”
Bailey-Taylor stated it was county commissioners who appointed Stancil to the Johnston County Visitors Bureau board, not her. “We don’t appoint people to our own board,” referencing the county commissioners Oct. 2014 appointment of Stancil.
Stancil’s Johnston County Visitors Bureau appointment was approved by Johnston County Commissioners on October 6, 2014. He formally joined the Johnston County Visitors Bureau Board on November 5, 2014. On October 27th, 2014, nine days before he joined the Johnston County Visitors Bureau Board, Bailey-Taylor signed a new billboard contract with Stancil’s company, valued at $45,000.