Waccamaw EOC panel member says state is bullying agency

Waccamaw Economic Opportunity Council board member Abdullah Mustafa says the letter he's holding in the steamy shade outside the Conway Library is proof that the S.C. Office of Economic Opportunity is out to get the Conway-based agency.

The letter, dated June 11, is written by Conway attorney Ralph Wilson and addressed to OEO Director Louise Cooper. It says that the state illegally took funds from the Waccamaw EOC when it downgraded its funding status and demands that the situation be corrected.

Specifically, the letter refers to the state taking about $2.4 million it had allocated to the agency, citing a lack of movement to correct problems the state had found with board members. The move reduced the agency, which helps thousands of low-income residents of Horry, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties with things such as utility bills and weatherization, to paying for services out of pocket, then getting reimbursed for paid bills submitted to the state office.

The money was never taken away from the agency, just the process by which it could be spent, according to Cooper. But the state's action caused the agency to close its doors for about a week in June and nearly to be permanently shut for insolvency.

Mustafa said the letter was faxed to Cooper the day it was dated, and the funding was restored to its former status the next day.

Mustafa said the sudden turnaround shows that the state was trying to bully EOC board members and quickly backed down when the board hired its own guns.

The letter dated June 11 wasn't faxed to the state office until June 17, according to a copy of the cover sheet for the facsimile. Cooper notified the agency that its funding status was restored at 10:30 that morning, hours before the fax arrived.

Past board members say Mustafa and at least some of the other remaining board members continue to seek to place fault for problems on the Waccamaw EOC board on someone else. One said she would have done whatever the state was asking if it meant that federal grant money would continue to flow from the agency to those who needed help.

The remaining board members at the time of the funding change were intractable, though, even when it appeared their unwillingness to comply could drive the agency into insolvency.

Former board members Ulysses Dewitt, also a former Horry County councilman, and Richard Smith, a Georgetown attorney, said they were ignored when they pointed out to EOC board Chairman Zach Grate and others that they were not running the board according to its bylaws. Dewitt and Smith were among board members who voluntarily resigned in June, after problems on the board reached a level where legislators asked them to step down at least until the problems could be resolved.

Grate could not be reached for comment. A man who answered Grate's phone on Tuesday said he wasn't Grate.

"I have no idea what they're thinking," Ruby Rodgers, another board member who stepped down, said of the remaining board members. "I have no idea what they're doing."

Mustafa, for instance, said the reason the state office audited the Waccamaw board in March was because Cooper was a close friend of Beth Fryar, executive director of the Waccamaw EOC. Mustafa said the EOC board had planned to issue a letter of reprimand to Fryar at its February retreat, and that when Fryar found out about it, she went to Cooper for help.

Thomas Welch, chief auditor for the state office, said scrutiny of the Waccamaw EOC was due to a state decision to audit all community action agencies. Cooper said Tuesday that audits were scheduled because the federal government, which supplies the grant money the agency spends, asked that all community action agency boards be monitored more carefully.

As for her relationship with Fryar, Cooper said she didn't know her until late last year, and that she had never heard until Tuesday afternoon that some board members wanted to reprimand Fryar. She said that she has heard previously that she had a relationship with a former board member as well, but said that wasn't true either.

"All of these allegations of personal relationships are categorically false," Cooper said Tuesday.

Dewitt and Smith said they, too, were at the February retreat, but did not stay for all of it and heard nothing about a reprimand. Rodgers and Horry County Councilman James Frazier, who also stepped down at legislators' request, said they remember something being said about it. But it was brought up and quickly dropped, Frazier said.

The current board members recently submitted a plan to the state office to correct problems found in the March audit, which included board member interference in the day-to-day operations of the agency and improper elections of board members, including Mustafa. Cooper said the plan and a solution should have been worked out by late April.

The state's reply said that Mustafa should be removed from the board, but he doesn't agree and defiantly says he will continue to insert himself into the agency's day-to-day operations if it means people are better served.

Rather, he said he feels the agency could use its millions of federal grant dollars to do so much more to help its low-income clients. He wants it to conduct employment training, after-school tutorials and literacy programs.

But the grants the agency gets are directed for specific things and can't be spent elsewhere.

Current board member Isabella McKnight of Georgetown County, the board's secretary, said she had no comment for this story. She said she had no idea what Smith was talking about when he said he was ignored for pointing out problems with following the board's bylaws.