Columbia mayoral candidate Tameika Isaac Devine is accusing an unnamed political opponent for a series of attack campaign flyers that have hit Columbia mailboxes in recent weeks.
The mailers have rekindled several issues that have been connected to Devine in the past, including an improper HUD loan, her advocating for a pay raise for City Council members and an ethics fine received by her husband.
Meanwhile, her three mayoral opponents — Moe Baddourah, Sam Johnson and Daniel Rickenmann — each said they had nothing to do with the mailings.
In a Tuesday night statement, Devine’s campaign said that the accusations in the recent flyers “are by one of her opponents in the race to become the next mayor of Columbia.” The opponent is not named in the statement, and when reached by The State on Wednesday, Devine said she would not disclose which of her opponents she believes had something to do with the pieces.
“In my 19 years working for the citizens of Columbia, I have never been charged with an ethics violation,” Devine said in her statement. “It is ironic that these recycled allegations continue to be raised during election time and now when we are on the verge of making history, dark money is being poured into this race to attack me.”
The political postcards each indicate they are paid for by Forward Columbia, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit public advocacy group that was launched earlier this year by political strategist Mark Knoop. He has been a Republican consultant for much of his career, working on campaigns for state Attorney General Alan Wilson and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson of Lexington, among others, though he also has worked on the municipal level. In an April story in The State, Knoop said Forward Columbia would be nonpartisan and would get involved local politics.
By law, 501(c)(4) organizations are not required to disclose the names of their donors, leading many to label them “dark money” groups.
When reached Wednesday by The State, Knoop declined comment.
Past issues hit mailboxes
A host of issues connected to Devine are broached in the recent mailers. She claims the mailers have “widely distorted” facts. The flyers often cite local news stories that were written about various incidents across more than a decade.
One of the mailers proclaims, “While Columbia’s families struggle to get by, Tameika Isaac Devine voted to give herself a pay raise!” and that “during Columbia’s disastrous flooding in 2015, Tameika took the opportunity to help herself.”
As reported by The State in 2015, discussions were held about raising City Council salaries from $13,350 per year to $15,177 per year. The raises ultimately were rejected in October 2015. Devine was a proponent of the raises, and she conceded in a Wednesday conversation that she was in favor of it. However, she noted that, while the final discussions on the matter took place in mid-October 2015, shortly after the historic flooding earlier that month, the conversation actually began in August of that year.
“The administrative policy committee, prior to the flood, was asked to look at council salaries and I was a member of that committee,” Devine said Wednesday. She also said Wednesday she still agrees that council salaries of roughly $13,000 annually are too small.
“We are getting where everyday people cannot serve in this position,” she said. “At some point people, even if they want to serve and serve the public, they wouldn’t financially be able to do it if you don’t at least look at keeping salaries up to what (other) councils make.”
A second mailer is designed to look like a Google search page and offers a definition of the word “nepotism” and alleges Devine has “indulged” in nepotism in the past. Specifically, the mailer lists an incident in which a HUD loan that went to Devine’s mother was deemed improper and had to be repaid. The mailer openly cites 2009 stories from The State and TV station WIS on the matter.
The loan in question came from the federal government but was administered by the city as part of the Sumter-Columbia Empowerment Zone. The empowerment zone was created in 1999 as a way to funnel federal money into some of the city’s poorest areas, with the goal of creating or retaining jobs.
The loan was for $280,000 to Veronica Isaac, Tameika’s mother, to purchase a building at 1419 Richland St. in downtown Columbia. Veronica Isaac later rented the building to Jabber & Isaac, Tameika Devine’s law firm. As noted in a November 2009 story from The State, HUD didn’t question whether it was proper to have Tameika Devine as a tenant. Rather, the federal agency said the money wasn’t used to create jobs in the Sumter-Columbia Empowerment Zone. Veronica Isaac repaid the loan to the city, and the city in turn repaid the federal government.
At the time, HUD also questioned a $179,000 loan to a pair of businessmen under the moniker CamBry Inc., who in 2008 had purchased Rickenmann’s two Birds On a Wire restaurants. As reported by The State in 2009, the businessmen, Bryan Singleton and Cameron Jordan Jr., later went bankrupt and closed the restaurants.
HUD questioned the loan because one of the restaurants was outside the empowerment zone. Rickenmann noted at the time that the loan was made to CamBry after he had sold the businesses to them.
Devine wondered why the loan to her mother was the only one of the long-ago HUD deals listed on the recent political mailer.
“So you send a mailer that talks about a HUD letter that mentions two people who are candidates for mayor, but you only elevate one?” Devine said.
A third mailer also uses the Google-style trope and cites news stories that call into question dealings involving Devine and her husband, Richland School District 1 board member Jamie Devine.
The Devines have faced scrutiny because of legal work Tameika Isaac Devine has done for the school district. As noted in a June 2020 story from The State, Devine’s law firm was paid tens of thousands of dollars for bond work for the school district while Jamie Devine has been on the board, and at times while he was the chairman of the board. Jamie Devine recused himself from voting on those bond matters, The Post and Courier reported in 2020.
The mailer suggests Tameika and Jamie Devine have been fined by the state Ethics Commission over Tameika’s bond legal work for the school district. But an ethics fine received by Jamie Devine actually was in relation to another matter.
Ethics Commission Executive Director Meghan Walker confirmed to The State that Tameika Isaac Devine has never been charged with an ethics violation by the state commission. The councilwoman emphasized that in a conversation with The State on Wednesday.
However, Jamie Devine has been fined by the state Ethics Commission in a case that involved his wife.
In 2020 he was hit with an ethics violation after, as a member of the school board, he voted in 2018 on a motion to extend a $550,000 contract to economic development nonprofit EngenuitySC. Tameika Isaac Devine sat on the board of EngenuitySC, but it was in an unpaid position.
‘I did not send those mailers’
Each of Devine’s opponents denied involvement in the recent mailers from Forward Columbia.
“I did not send those mailers, no,” Baddourah, a former District 3 City Councilman, plainly told The State on Wednesday. “I’m not involved.”
Johnson, a former chief of staff to Mayor Steve Benjamin, also denied having anything to do with Forward Columbia’s mailers. Johnson said criticisms he’s had against Devine or other candidates — for instance, in an Oct. 6 forum hosted by The State, he criticized the 2015 discussion about raising council salaries — have come during debates or in emails with his name attached to them.
“Anything I’ve had to say, I’ve said directly to the citizens of Columbia, and I’ve said them in forums in front of my opponents,” Johnson said.
Rickenmann, who represents City Council’s District 4, said he also was not involved in Forward Columbia’s mailers. He said any mayoral mailers he’s associated with are clearly marked as being from him.
“I have five flyers or mailers out there, that I paid for, and they have my name on them,” he said.