Bingo group

Seniors check their BINGO cards at the Carolina Forest Senior Center in 2016. Horry County officials and the Council on Aging are developing plans to build a 5,000-square-foot center beside the Carolina Forest Recreation Center on Carolina Forest Boulevard.

The State Law Enforcement Division launched an investigation into the Horry County Council on Aging after a former employee of the nonprofit raised concerns about the publicly funded organization’s finances.

SLED spokesman Thom Berry said the probe began after the former employee sent a letter to SLED Chief Mark Keel. SLED agents looked into the matter and decided to start a formal investigation on Feb. 14.

“It is open and it is being worked,” he said.

Berry would not provide any specific details about the allegations in the letter that prompted the investigation. The letter is a public record, but it is part of the case file and won’t be released until the conclusion of the inquiry.

The nonprofit’s leaders maintain they aren’t exactly sure what investigators are seeking to uncover, though they have turned over some financial records to SLED.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know myself,” said Bobby Jordan, the council’s chairman. “I understand that we’re being investigated, but nobody’s told us anything.”

The Council on Aging receives local, state and federal funding to provide meals, activities and other services to the county’s seniors. The nonprofit runs 10 senior centers throughout Horry and is trying to secure a loan to build a larger center in Carolina Forest.

Ray Fontaine, the council’s executive director, said he was surprised when he got a call from SLED about the investigation three months ago.

Fontaine said an agent came to his office and wanted records that showed how many meals the organization provided to seniors and how much the state had reimbursed the council for those meals. Fontaine said he turned over those reports and also gave the investigator two years’ worth of bank statements.

Council leaders are waiting to hear more from SLED.

The council’s board is responsible for managing the nonprofit’s budget, programs and policies, but the Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments (COG) also provides some oversight to the organization. The COG is a quasi-governmental agency that works with agencies in Horry, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties.

Fontaine said the council will be “totally wide open and cooperative” with SLED investigators. He stressed that council staff, the group’s attorney and its accountant have not found anything amiss in their books. If something was incorrect in the records, he said the COG or another agency would have likely detected it.

“It’s totally unfounded,” he said. “It’s crazy. We have so much oversight we can’t move in either direction without someone … knowing about it.”

Although the Council on Aging has different funding sources, the nonprofit appears on local property tax bills because it receives dedicated county millage. Through three quarters of the fiscal year that ends June 30, the county’s finance department had distributed nearly $672,000 to the council, according to public records. The final payment of the fiscal year has not been made yet. 

Council on Aging leaders have wondered if the SLED inquiry is connected to a lawsuit that was filed against the organization last year by Laura Cason, the council’s former marketing director.

Filed Dec. 18 in Surfside Beach Magistrate Court, Cason’s complaint alleges the Council on Aging owes her nearly $2,500 in back pay from 2015-2017, according to court documents. She’s also seeking $500 in damages and another $500 in accounting fees.   

The nonprofit disputes Cason’s claims. A letter from the council’s accountant James Lawrimore said his calculations are different than Cason’s. He did acknowledge there was an issue with “computer rounding,” but it left Cason underpaid by just $4.77 over the three-year period. 

The case is scheduled to be heard Aug. 7.

When contacted by myhorrynews.com, Cason said she did not write a letter to SLED and her court complaint is a disagreement over back pay that is unrelated to the state inquiry.

“I don’t really know what’s going on with the SLED investigation,” she said. “I would assume they could tell you more about that than me.”

Fontaine said he isn’t worried about SLED uncovering wrongdoing, but he’s concerned about the negative publicity from the investigation.

“I’m not real happy that someone’s done this, obviously,” he said. “But I feel confident that they’re not going to find anything. I’m saddened that someone has gone to this length, this degree, to put us under the microscope.”

Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236

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I'm the editor of myhorrynews.com and the Carolina Forest Chronicle, a weekly newspaper in Horry County, South Carolina. I cover county government, the justice system and agriculture. Know of a story that needs to be covered? Call me at 843-488-7236.

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