DARLINGTON, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — By the time Charles Shugart got the call about the sinkholes behind the city’s public works shop, it was too late for the city to do anything about it.
“I said, ‘What sinkhole?’ and they brought me around here and showed me this. So, then I started asking questions about why it isn’t fixed, do we have a plan to get it fixed and how did it happen,” Shugart told Queen City News Chief Investigator Jody Barr during an interview in October.
The sinkholes were several feet deep when we visited the site along W. Broad Street in August. By the time we returned to the site to interview Shugart in October, he estimated one of the sinkholes around a catch basin to be around 12 feet deep.
“I’d say that that is getting out there about 15 feet deep,” Shugart said, “Yeah, 12-to-15 feet deep to the top of the catch basin. I’m six foot tall and you put more than two of me in there.”
Shugart said he immediately started investigating. He found the sinkholes had formed along stormwater pipes installed as part of the $2.7 million Southwest Darlington Drainage Project.
The project was finished a few years before Shugart started working for the city.
“The whole project has sinkholes like this in there. This isn’t the only one,” Shugart said. “The director started asking city staff about the project: who designed it, who constructed it. The designer was just down the highway in Florence; an engineering firm named Hanna Engineering.”
The utility director then did a little more digging.
“What I found out was the engineer that designed this project was notified 13 months after construction had completed. I actually called that engineer and asked him about it, and he said yes, that someone had called 13 months after the project was completed, but the project only had a 12-month warranty for workmanship and that contractor was out of business,” Shugart told QCN.
“You get a longer warranty on a car,” Barr replied.
Shugart and the city started collecting every document they could find.
City Manager John Payne told QCN that many of the original documents related to the project were not in city hall when he set out to find them after Shugart found those sinkholes. The former city manager said a chimney collapse at the former city hall office destroyed most of the documents related to the project.
By the time Payne’s administration called in a forensic engineer and hired a law firm in September 2021 to investigate their options, the city learned the $2.7 million stormwater project started with a $500,000 ditch repair and grew into the Southwest Darlington Drainage Project.
“Yeah, well, it took two years to fund it and took another year to construct it. It took two years to design it, engineer it, and fund it, and took about another year, I think, to complete the project. So, three years to put together a project and pay for it, and get it done. And it only last 12 months, I knew something wasn’t right about that,” Shugart said.
“I got to looking at the whole project and practically every run of pipe has at least one sinkhole. Some of them have two like this one, or some of them have even more. All the way through the whole project,” Shugart told QCN, “But what got me about this project was failure in practically every stretch that I looked at it. There are several sinkholes throughout this project and they’re dangerous.”
“Do you think the taxpayers of Darlington got what they paid for?” Barr asked. “Oh, no. Without a doubt, they haven’t,” Shugart replied.
‘TOTAL FAILURE OF THE PROCESS’
By the time City Manager John Payne finished sorting through the records he found and followed the money trail connected to the drainage project, he was left with two choices.
“One, do nothing and make city customers pay for the future repairs, or two, engage a forensic engineer and legal counsel to determine which parties are liable for the failure and make them pay for the repairs. I chose option two,” Payne told the city council during an Oct. 11, 2023, public meeting on what he called a failure of a project.
Payne said when the city decided in 2016 to launch the $2.7 million project, the city did not have the funds in place to pay for it. The initial project, which was supposed to fix a ditch with stagnant water along Chalmers Street, started with a $500,000 taxpayer-funded grant in hand. By the time the engineering firm finished its work, Payne said the city and the engineer agreed to expand the scope to include a 72-acre project that drove the price to nearly $3 million.
QCN contacted Michael Hanna, president of Hanna Engineering, to request an interview to allow him the opportunity to publicly address the city’s allegations. In an Oct. 17 email response, Hanna declined an interview.
“I will not be making any comments to anyone until we prepare a response to the City regarding what we determine to be unfounded allegations.”Michael Hanna, Hanna Engineering President
We also made multiple attempts to contact officials with Landsdown Earth and Pipe, Linda Vordonis and Vince Labarbara. Calls and text messages to phone numbers we found for them were not returned. We went to the Monroe address listed on the contract with the city and the property was posted ‘No Trespassing.’ The company’s address on Concord Highway was also posted with ‘No Trespassing’ signs.
We were unable to leave a letter for the company officials.
A year after finishing the Darlington project, the North Carolina Department of Revenue charged both Vordonis and Labarbara with multiple counts of Embezzlement of State Property. An NCDOR press release shows the pair were accused of not paying withholding taxes from January 2009 through Jan. 31, 2018. Wake County court records show both pleaded guilty to the charges in December 2020.
We contacted the pair’s criminal attorney, Eben Turner Rawls, III, in a further attempt to contact the company’s officials. Rawls’ law firm took our message but no one responded.
“It’s important to note that the City of Darlington awarded a $2.563 million project to Lansdowne, directed the contractor to proceed, and did not have the funding in place to pay for it,” forensic engineer Steven Moore told the council and the public during the Oct. 11 public meeting.
Moore is a professional engineer with Applied Building Sciences, an engineering firm with offices in Charlotte, two locations in South Carolina, and one in Florida. Moore is based in the firm’s Charlotte office. The firm’s website includes Moore’s credentials, which include “years of experience in failures, faulty construction, code violations, and life-safety issues for building envelopes, roofs and structural assessments. He is well experienced in residential and commercial development, including public and private infrastructure like street and intersection design, construction, maintenance, deficiencies, and failures.”
“I spent a lot of my career for the City of Charlotte, I was a construction engineer and I know that in North Carolina you have to have your funds encumbered before you can go to work. I suspect South Carolina has a very similar requirement.”
“And you said the project was started without funding approval?,” Darlington Mayor Curtis Boyd asked Moore during the Oct. 11 meeting. “Based on the information I have, that’s correct, sir. You awarded the contract; you issued a notice to proceed and then you went out and tried to figure out how to pay for it,” Moore replied.
Boyd was not mayor when the project started in 2016 and was not mayor when it was finished in May 2019. Boyd took office in January 2020, seven months after the project was finished.
“It does appear there was a lack of fiduciary responsibilities and controls exhibited on this project, and I would equate that to a total failure of the process. However, that was not the first failure of this project,” Moore said.
“The pipe installation in the storm drain project has resulted in several areas of significant soil subsidence, especially behind the public workshop,” Moore told council.
“The storm drain system is a result of poor design and/or construction. Overall, from a storm drain operational standpoint, the system is not functional, does not appear to have the required capacity for the present stormwater loads. In fact, some of the stormwater pipes are significantly undersized,” Moore said during the Oct. 11 meeting.
Moore’s firm issued the city a 16-page preliminary engineering report on its analysis of the drainage project. The report details several missing documents:
- No stormwater report which includes the design calculations, referenced standards, and storm design frequency used for their storm drainage design was provided for review.
- The contractor was required to obtain 3rd party soil testing and provide soil information. No soil information or soil test results were provided for review.
- The contractor was required to provide a complete set of as-built drawings. No as-built drawings were provided for review.
- A review of the available pay applications generally indicates that a majority of the pay items were utilized in the project and paid for.
The forensic engineer went to Darlington on Feb. 9, 2023, to walk the stormwater system. Moore listed his “most pertinent findings” and included photographs in the report he sent the city:
- A lack of proper drainage was apparent near multiple drop inlets located on or near Coker Street. The terrain of the area near the inlets was relatively flat, and no grading was performed to promote drainage to the inlets.
- Improper grading was observed near and adjacent to drop inlets located in the areas of Anhow Street, Chalmers Street, and Coker Street.
- Sanitary sewer discharge was observed in a drainage ditch that routes water to the drop inlet located off Chalmers Street, east of the railroad tracks.
- Overgrown vegetation in the drainage ditches and around the drop inlets were restricting flow into multiple drop inlets including the drop inlet off of Chalmers Street, east of the railroad tracks. A tree trunk was observed within this drop inlet having been transported into the drop inlet from the contributing ditch.
The report also included a drawing showing how pipes in the middle of the system reduced in size.
“There are no inverts within the storm drain structures. Pipe sizes reduce as the overall drainage system basin increases, in direct contrast to what it should do,” Moore told council members.
Moore told council there were still many questions he couldn’t answer in his investigation. Questions as to who managed the project, their qualifications,
“Who reviewed and approved the design that allowed for reduction of pipe sizes as the size of the basin increased, which would require larger pipes, not smaller ones,” Moore asked. The unanswered questions also included asking who managed the project, their credentials, and who inspected work as it was completed.
Moore’s analysis also found raw sewage within the stormwater system.
“In conclusion, the deficient performance of the existing stormwater system is a result of poor design and or construction installation. Issues originating from the initial construction of the system improvements are contributing to system failures such as the soil subsidence and maintenance issues. Substantial soil subsidence is contributing to unsafe conditions around the pipe and inlets, as well as reducing the capacity due to soil build-up within the system,” Moore told council on Oct. 11.
“Finally, a sanitary sewer that tied into the stormwater poses a health and environmental risk to the downtown water bodies and to the public health,” Moore said.
The firm recommended to city leadership to look at a total repair job of the system and to turn the investigation over to an entity with the power to subpoena.
“Certainly, some of the findings might not be flattering, but you, as the leaders of the city and more importantly the city and the taxpayers of Darlington are entitled to know how their taxes are being spent and why they have a non-functional storm drain system that will impact budgets for years to come. The investigation, I believe, requires someone with the ability to issue documents and deposition subpoenas in order to gain a clear understanding of the full price. ABS cannot do that. That’s not within our realm. We don’t have that power,” Moore said in closing his presentation during the Oct. 11 meeting.
UNANIMOUS COUNCIL ACTION
When Darlington City Council walked into city hall on Oct. 11, they had a decision to make. That decision is the first step toward a potential lawsuit to hold the people responsible for the Southwest Darlington Drainage Project accountable.
“What Mr. Moore has laid out is, I said there’s some questions. Two things that aren’t really any question based upon my review of Mr. Moore’s report, based upon my discussions with Mr. Moore, is that you’ve got issues with both the design and construction of the project,” Nick Nicholson, a Columbia attorney with Hayesworth, Sinkler, and Boyd, told council.
Nicholson said soon after the city contacted him about the project, he acted. The attorney sent letters to Hanna Engineering and to Landsdown Earth and Pipe’s surety company asking them to repair the project, but Nicholson hasn’t “gotten any satisfactory response,” he told council.
Nicholson recommended council send a formal notice under the South Carolina Right to Cure Act.
“Basically, under our state law before an action is commenced to bring a construction – to bring a lawsuit against either design professional or construction professional, basically have to give them notice pursuant to the statute with certified mail that says this is what we think the problem is, you have a right to reach out to us, to cure it, to tell us what you intend to do to repair the problem. Or if you don’t do that, we’re going to go to court,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson said the parties have 60 days to respond, which means a response is due to city hall by mid-December.
Council voted unanimously to send a Right to Cure letter to Hanna Engineering and Landsdown Earth and Pipe’s surety bond insurer. That letter went out the day after the council vote.
Payne confirmed as of Nov. 1, the city had not received a response to their Right to Cure letter. The letter is the first step toward a lawsuit.
“If you do send those letters, you are not committing to a lawsuit,” Nicholson cautioned. “If eventually, you want to say, for instance, that if one or more of the parties that we think performed bad work came back and gave us a reasonable response, then you wouldn’t have to go forward with a lawsuit. So, you’re not committing yourself to really anything which you’re doing now. You are taking the next step in moving this project forward.”
The attorney told council a lawsuit could open the door to answers Moore outlined in his presentation to council during the Oct. 11 public meeting.
“I do agree with Mr. Moore, there are some things that we don’t know, and there may be some things that we will discover; if we do go to a lawsuit we can discover through the course of – it’s called discovery, through asking written interrogatories and requests for documents, taking depositions, issuing subpoenas to people. And so, through that process, who knows what we may find,” Nicholson said.
‘I HAVE NO COMMENT ON THIS PROJECT’
If anyone with Hanna Engineering or Landsdown Earth and Pipe were inside council chambers on Oct. 11, they didn’t identify themselves to council or rise to contest what was said. The only other contractor listed in city records with involvement in the project in attendance was Jannie Lathan.
Lathan sat in the audience listening and taking notes throughout the more than half-hour public meeting.
Lathan owns Lathan Consulting Corporation, a consulting firm located inside her home in Darlington. City records show Lathan started working for the city long before the Southwest Darlington Drainage Project. We filed a Freedom of Information Act with the city for spending records and contracts between Lathan and the city. The city turned over accounting showing eight years of payments to Lathan Consulting and Jannie Lathan.
“She had done a lot of work for the city of Darlington, I believe, starting around 2011, 2010. But over the span of about eight years, Lathan Consulting or Janie Lathan have been paid $336,000 by the people of Darlington,” Payne told QCN.
Payne said Lathan wrote multiple grants where the city was awarded taxpayer funding used on public projects around the city. City council meeting records also showed Jannie Lathan played a leading role in the future development of the city’s stormwater systems beginning in 2011.
Part of Lathan’s work included the creation of a stormwater master plan, which council meeting minutes show was completed sometime around 2011 or 2012. The master plan was a joint venture between Lathan and the Stone Engineering Group, both entities had addresses located at Lathan’s Oak Street home in Darlington at the time.
“The final master-planning document is intended to act as a road map to focus phasing, funding, and implementation of stormwater conveyance improvements within the City, resulting in minimizing localized flooding,” the master plan’s “Intended Results” stated.
City meeting minutes from September 2012 also show former City Manager Howard Garland directed Lathan to draft a stormwater ordinance for the city.
In response to our SCFOIA request, the city also disclosed a contract between Lathan Consulting Corporation and the city titled, ‘Administration Contract.’ The contract detailed Lathan’s responsibilities concerning the “technical and administrative services” concerning a Rural Infrastructure Authority Grant used to fund part of the Southwest Darlington Drainage Project.
LATHAN CONSULTING CONTRACT:
The contract called for up to $82,000 in payments to Lathan and an additional $108 an hour for “any additional worked [sic] requested and approved” by the city, according to the contract document.
The contract was executed in May 2018, signed by Lathan and former city manager Howard Garland, but the dates contained in the contract show Lathan was responsible for work dating back to 2015. The city believed this contract to be an extension of a prior contract executed by city administration with Lathan, but city manager Payne could not locate the original contract pursuant to our SCFOIA request.
We tried to interview Lathan immediately following the council meeting.
“I have no comment about this project,” Lathan told Barr. “You heard what they said tonight, it was a failure,” Barr replied. “I heard what they said and I have no comment on this project,” Lathan said.
Lathan later clarified her role in the Southwest Darlington Drainage Project as that of grant administrator.
“There is no basis to blame me for a project that I did not manage,” Lathan wrote in an Oct. 22 statement emailed to Barr in response to questions concerning her role in the project.
“I was responsible for successfully getting the grant money for the city to undertake the project, and I continued to assist in the administration of the grant during the project,” Lathan wrote in the statement.
Lathan wrote that the inclusion of her and her company into the discussion concerning the stormwater project’s failure is politically motivated.
“I do not believe this much‐needed infrastructure project was a failure as it is now being characterized by people with different agendas. I also believe they are making numerous other false statements about the project, the project engineer, and the construction company,” Lathan wrote to QCN.
A review of Darlington City Council meeting minutes since 2009 shows Lathan’s grant writing landed multiple taxpayer-backed grants. Former Darlington Mayor Gloria Hines lauded Lathan’s work during her farewell address to council on Dec. 3, 2019, crediting Lathan’s work as a major contribution to what Hines said were historic achievements for the city.
Hines’ administration spearheaded the Southwest Darlington Drainage Project. Hines lost re-election to current Mayor Curtis Boyd in November 2019, just six months after the storm water project was finished.
“During my tenure as mayor, we have made history twice. First as the first black mayor and second as the first black female mayor of the city council. Under my leadership, some wonderful and great things have happened. We secured a $2.5 million in grant money and the city of Darlington Storm Water Bond,” Hines said during the council meeting.
“The largest amount of money at one time for a project in the city of Darlington, history made again. The stormwater project beginning from Fleming Street to Short Coker Street, which is now completed. The infrastructure project, which eliminated the stinky, that stinky smell coming from the Oil Mill draining into the ditch on Chalmers Street. Lathan Consulting Company wrote the RIA grant for this project,” Hines said.
Hines confronted us on Oct. 16 while recording a video of her campaign sign across the street from Lathan’s business.
“You want to talk to me about this storm water project,” Barr asked, “I’m not going to say anything right now, I’m not going to say anything right now,” Hines responded.
“Why not?” Barr asked.
“Well, I’m just not going to say anything. They know what’s going on with it,” Hines said.
Hines also issued a written statement to us on Oct. 22 in response to questions about the Southwest Darlington Storm Water Project.
Hines wrote, “What I most object to are some of the false statements being made by some of your sources.”
Hines’ statement was 11 days after the public council meeting where the city’s allegations were live-streamed over the internet.
“At least some of those sources are personally and politically motivated against me,” Hines wrote.
Hines is a current candidate for one of the city council’s at-large seats.
Under Hines’ leadership, the council voted to borrow $2.4 million to fund the drainage project. The city will pay $181,000 in 2023 in bond payments, according to Payne. The payments come from fees tacked onto Darlington water bills, Payne said – something the former city council voted to impose on water users.
“That’s a lot of money for a small town to swallow. We ended up having to take a bond, a 20-year bond for $2,417,000 to pay for this. Within two years, it had failed. And as the engineer, the forensic engineer explained, it was pretty much an utter failure,” Payne said in an interview with QCN in October.
“We’ve still got 15 years left on that bond. According to my auditor, we still owe $1,985,000. The people who pay that are the customers. The demographics of Darlington. We’re an older community. We have a lot of low-to-moderate-income people. And every time they pay a water bill, every time they pay a sewer bill, they pay a little bit towards this bond. So, it is it’s on their backs for a total of 20 years,” Payne said.