State investigates Upstate bond referendum tied to Horry County school builder

LAURENS, SC (WBTW) – Firstfloor Energy Positive, the builder of Horry County’s five over budget and delayed new schools, spent more than $62,000 campaigning for a failed bond referendum that’s now under investigation by two state agencies, new campaign finance records show.

If the referendum had passed, Firstfloor would’ve gotten $109 million in school construction projects from Laurens School District 55, including an $85 million high school project.

The referendum, which would’ve increased the average family’s tax bill by $20 per month, divided Laurens.

“If a community can’t afford it they can’t afford it, you can’t get blood out of a turnip,” said Dianne Belsom at an anti-bond referendum rally held before the vote. “We can’t afford this tax increase.”

Meanwhile, the “Kids First” campaign, funded almost entirely by Firstfloor and supported by some top school district officials, opened its own campaign headquarters to support the bond.

The campaign spent more than $30,000 on advertising, campaign finance reports filed this week show.

It also paid more than $5,000 to attorney Keith Powell. He worked on behalf of Horry County Schools in 2015 while negotiating unusual school contracts that allowed Firstfloor to extend the school construction schedule by months without penalty. Powell told News13 the campaign,”solely managed” by Laurens County citizens, hired him to mostly help with regulatory filings. “I want to see the board succeed in what it decided to do,” he wrote.

The well-funded Laurens campaign, however, didn’t sway enough voters. Perhaps foreshadowing the voters’ decision, the “Kids First” campaign begged people opposing the bond to stay off its Facebook posts and asked its supporters to “refrain from engaging the opposition” a few days before the vote. They only wanted “positive and supportive” comments.

The referendum failed in September, with nearly 77% of people voting against it, but election day antics sparked an investigation the next day.

The “Kids First” campaign gave coupons for free fish sandwiches to voters. The campaign claimed anyone who voted could’ve gotten a coupon, not just supporters of the referendum, WSPA reported.

The coupon, obtained by WBTW, says “approved by: Gregory Bryant”. A “Greg Bryant” serves as a “business development executive” for Metcon, the same construction company that worked with Firstfloor on schools in Horry County.

Aaron Thomas, the president of Metcon, wrote in a text message, “Called Greg. He said someone in the community made tickets up. Didn’t know anything about it until that day but did help committee and cook fish on fish fry Election Day.”

SLED opened an investigation into whether the intent of the coupon was to buy votes after a request by David Stumbo, the 8th Circuit Solicitor, according to WSPA.

Representative Mike Pitts, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, also heard allegations of voter intimidation. Two businesses that campaigned against the bond said they were told they’d lose the school district’s business if they didn’t stop pushing a “no vote”, Pitts told WSPA. District employees told Pitts they’d received indirect threats.

Pitts asked the attorney general to investigate the claims. Robert Kittle, a spokesperson for the attorney general, confirmed the investigation, but he wouldn’t say whether Firstfloor is under investigation.

Robbie Ferris, the CEO of Firstfloor Energy Positive, released a statement Thursday afternoon:

When Firstfloor Energy Positive asked if it could participate in the Kids First Campaign, the committee supported our participation and informed us that they had retained Keith as their legal advisor. Funds contributed by us were to the Kids First Campaign, not Keith Powell.
 
Mr. Powell has represented Firstfloor Energy Positive in one previous instance. Mr. Powell is perceived to be the leading school construction attorney in South Carolina and when we had some questions regarding the language and meaning of portions of a request for proposals, we consulted with him to better understand the offeror’s meaning.
 
We have heard that the state has made some routine inquiries regarding the bond referendum and have no additional information.

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