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Haley asked to overhaul S.C.'s Heritage Corridor

A Democratic lawmaker said Friday he wants Republican Gov. Nikki Haley to take over the state's National Heritage Corridor because of previous misspending and overhaul its unusual management structure.

State Rep. Bakari Sellers of Denmark said Haley should prevent the program from doling out any money until it's overhauled.

"It's an executive agency running awry," he said. "I'm very concerned. In poor, rural South Carolina, we have to make sure we're using agencies and resources wisely. The mission is not being met; that's my largest concern."

The program, created by Congress in 1996, is designed to promote tourism and economic development in a mostly rural, 17-county swath of South Carolina, which includes Sellers' district and Haley's hometown of Bamberg.

According to a Legislative Audit Council report issued last month, a 2006 internal audit by the state's parks agency found questionable spending between July 2004 and December 2005 by the private, nonprofit board that then managed the program.

The audit council report listed more than $65,000 worth of examples, including $5,600 spent on alcohol for meetings; $27,000 on Christmas meals and luncheons; $8,500 on Santa suits, a hot dog warmer and gift certificates; $3,500 on credit card payments without a receipt; and $650 on a band.

The board also awarded itself more than $50,000 in grants for brochures, marketing and maps, according to the audit.

The state's Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department made some reforms, culminating in 2008 with former Gov. Mark Sanford putting the program under the agency's control and giving the nonprofit advisory status.

But the agency never asked for the money back or disciplined staff, partly because it couldn't determine whether the questionable spending involved state, federal or private money, agency officials told the audit council.

Sellers contends it demonstrates a lack of concern for a program serving rural South Carolina.

"I'm not sure what's going on over there, and I'm trying to get somebody to give me some answers," he said.

The audit council recommends the agency get reimbursed for the questionable spending, revamp management and measure the program's effectiveness.

While there is information on visitation to certain sites and promotions, "data concerning the extent to which the program is achieving its mission of heritage tourism and economic revitalization has not been available," the audit said.

Haley's spokesman said the governor and the agency's new director, Duane Parrish, are committed to addressing the issues. Parrish officially took the post two weeks ago after senators confirmed him.

"After a thorough review, Duane will make a recommendation to the governor on a course of action," spokesman Rob Godfrey said.

Parrish, agency staff, and corridor officials are in the process of figuring out the right management solution, said agency spokesman Marion Edmonds.

The federal government gave the program $10 million in 1997 to use over 15 years, with the stipulation that state or private funds provide a 50 percent match.

From 2005-10, the corridor spent between $800,000 and $1 million in federal money, with about $300,000 annually doled out in grants for local projects. This fiscal year, it's operating on a $500,000 budget, with half of that going to salaries and operations, and half to community grants, according to the audit.