CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, S.C. (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) — It was a proud walk out across Pee Dee Fuel’s parking lot as Patrick Norris showed off his fuel transfer station and the fuel trucks he uses to haul gas and diesel across the Pee Dee of South Carolina and into parts of North Carolina.
“We do propane and kerosene and gasoline and diesel. We do it all,” Norris said as he walked out to his parked fuel trucks. “Anything in the gas business, we’re able to do it.”
We tracked Norris down amid our investigation into how Chesterfield County purchased somewhere around a million gallons of fuel since 2011. Working from a tip that a county councilman benefited from nearly all of those fuel buys, we found emails from Chesterfield County Finance Director Michelle Stanley, asking Norris to bid on fuel purchases.
“There’s one from October 12, 2020, requesting low sulfur diesel here,” Norris said holding a bid solicitation Stanley emailed him from her county email address. “Here’s one from March the 17th of ’21 asking the same thing,” Norris said holding the last bid sheet the county sent him.
“Never won the first one, never have sold them anything,” Norris told FOX 46. “Every time I send it in just the way they requested…I said did we win the bid? I never heard anything from them, and we’ve never won the bid.”
Having never won a contract, Norris said he stopped responding to the county and asked Stanley to stop sending bid solicitations to him in 2019. Norris was the third vendor Stanley used to meet the county procurement code’s mandate that county administration solicits bids from three qualified bidders.
County records show the solicitations Stanley sent Norris did not stop.
THE 23.5 HOUR DEMAND
We filed South Carolina Freedom of Information Act requests with Chesterfield County seeking access to every document related to petroleum purchases since Jan. 1, 2011. Over the course of a few months, the county provided copies of bid solicitations, spending records, and documents that would show whether the county followed its own purchasing policies with fuel purchases.
The documents revealed exactly how the county purchased fuel, always in a rush.
“Will you order me a load of diesel fuel To [sic] be delivered tomorrow [sic] thank you,” Chesterfield County Fleet Management Director, Travis Tucker, wrote to Stanley in an August 2019 email. Tucker’s email caused Stanley to create a bid sheet, asking for at least 7,500 gallons of diesel.
The bid sheet shows in order to win the bid, a vendor had to submit a price-per-gallon quote by 4:30 p.m. “…on the same day to be considered valid.” The vendor also must guarantee delivery by 4:30 p.m. the following day for the county to deem the bid valid.
County records show Tucker sent his fuel request to Stanley at 6:03 a.m. Stanley sent the first bid sheet to Curtis Oil Company at 8:31 a.m. Those same records show Stanley then emailed the same bid sheet to Pee Dee Fuel and Petroleum Traders Corporation at 8:46 a.m. – 15 minutes after Curtis Oil received the solicitation via fax.
The Curtis Oil Company belonged to Chesterfield County Councilman Douglas Curtis’ family and employed the council vice-chairman up until the Curtis family sold the business in August 2020.
Records provided to FOX 46 under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act show only Curtis Oil submitted a bid for the August 2019 solicitation, offering to sell at least 7,500 gallons of diesel to the county at $2.38 a gallon. The county did not have records showing whether Petroleum Traders Corporation submitted a bid or the amount of the bid.
Norris confirmed his firm didn’t submit a bid for this solicitation.
The county could not answer whether Curtis Oil won that bid, but spending records show a Sept. 20, 2019 payment to Curtis Oil for $13,878.60. Stanley told FOX Charlotte Chief Investigative Jody Barr she did not send award notices to bidders or record who won the contract. Stanley said the county notifies winning vendors by a phone call.
Stanley said she typically “cut checks” within two weeks of fuel delivery.
Stanley suggested we use a payment roster to determine which vendor was awarded a solicitation for a fuel contract. The payment roster was provided to us by the county under an open records request and shows the payment date, the vendor’s name, the voucher number, the county check number, and the amount of each payment.
Despite the rule requiring a bid submission by 4:30 p.m., county records show Curtis Oil Company’s bid sheet wasn’t clocked in on the county fax machine until 5:03 p.m. The county’s payment roster indicates the county accepted the bid and paid the Curtis Oil Company $13,878.60.
That one bid invitation tells the story of how Chesterfield County solicited bids in $2.5 million petroleum purchases between 2011 and 2021, the timeframe covered by our open records requests.
“I would get an email, 11 or 12 o’clock in the day and they would be requesting a price by 4:30 that afternoon and with a time schedule like that, sometimes it’s hard to do,” Norris told FOX 46. Norris also operates a large, full-time farming operation in Chesterfield and Darlington Counties. “If they would give us three or four days’ notice, you know, we need fuel on Friday and they’d let us know on Monday or Tuesday, then it would be a whole lot easier and better.”
Getting a tanker of fuel delivered to Chesterfield County in less than 24 hours was nearly impossible, according to Norris.
“And especially in today’s time. Used to, it wasn’t realistic, and now it’s really out of the picture,” Norris said. “We’re ordering stuff three and four days in advance hoping to get it to some of our customers in the timeframe they need it. Even being three or four days ahead, it’s still tight.”
Norris supplies fuel to the entire town of Cheraw – to include its public safety departments – to a large hospital system in the Pee Dee, and to at least two multi-billion-dollar corporations in Darlington County.
“How competitive was the price you were giving Chesterfield County,” Barr asked Norris, “Real competitive. I was going almost to the bone, so to speak, to win the bid. Because I’m right here, it’s right here on home ground. It being right here at home, I always try to look out for local people, especially here in my home county.”
THAT’S A ‘BID RIGGING’ PROCESS
Jay Bender slid a large leather-upholstered chair from under the end of his law firm conference room and pulled open a law book containing the 35,000-plus word South Carolina Public Officers and Employees ethics law.
Bender, who for nearly 50 years, has practiced law defending the public’s right to know the business of its government looked over the records we obtained from Chesterfield County as part of our investigation.
“In my view, that’s not a bid process, that’s a bid rigging process and the people who are probably paying the price for that are the taxpayers of Chesterfield County,” Bender told Barr, “If there were a legitimate bid process, you would anticipate the fuel need, you would know that it would take a couple of days, perhaps, to get 7,500 gallons of diesel or gasoline to Chesterfield County and you would structure your bids so that you would get three legitimate responses.”
We attempted to ask Travis Tucker, the county’s fleet manager, why the fuel purchases appeared to be last-minute and whether the county had any way to know its on-hand fuel inventory to anticipate fuel needs. The county has two large above ground fuel storage tanks at its 97 Jones Road public works site.
Tucker did not respond to our messages.
One concern for Bender was the way the county notified the public it needed fuel. Instead of posting the business for all fuel suppliers who may be interested in competing for the business, county records show the finance director picked vendors to whom she’d send bid sheets. A decade of records show Stanley would fax solicitations to the Curtis Oil Company and would then separately email solicitations to two other vendors.
County records show 287 bulk fuel purchases totaling $2,569,105 between 2011 and 2021. The county awarded the Curtis Oil Company 237 of 287 purchases totaling $2,081,705, according to records provided by the county.
The county did not have records showing Councilman Curtis ever submitted a recusal related to the fuel sales. That’s likely because the county procurement code grants the county administrator the authority to make purchases between $1 and $49,999.99 so long as the administrator follows the rules outlined in the code.
In our review of a decade of council minutes, we could not find any instance of fuel purchasing as a council action item that likely would have required Curtis to recuse himself and file a disclosure. Records provided by the county under the open records act also did not show any council action directly related to fuel purchasing.
Bender thinks the focus of an investigation should fall on those who organized the bid solicitations and spending, “I think there’s a difference between ethical behavior in the interest of taxpayers and the very bare minimum legality. I think in Chesterfield County, what we have here is a circumstance that may have some aspects of illegality, but you as a reporter will have difficulty finding it out. It would have to be probably something that law enforcement would look into. But it doesn’t pass the eye test because it doesn’t look good. It doesn’t pass the smell test because it doesn’t smell good. And it looks like a bid rigging process and not a bid process.”
We also asked the county for records showing any recusal or conflict of interest statement filed by a Chesterfield County councilmember since 2011. The county did not have any records showing Councilman Curtis filed a disclosure statement in the past decade. The only recusals on file in the past decade were filed by Councilwoman Mary Anderson.
Anderson filed three recusals; two in 2018 and one in 2020. The 2018 recusals came after Anderson publicly disclosed a family member’s ownership interest in a taxpayer-backed project and the 2020 recusal happened after Anderson disclosed her employment relationship with a “principal” connected to a condemnation project in July 2020.
Despite finding no apparent ethical violation in the records provided by the county, Bender said Curtis’ position could provide an “indirect” influence over county employees, “It looks to me like this council member – who is employed by this company, and I understand the company is owned by his brother – probably has less direct involvement in the process than the person who manages the fleet and the person who sends out the request.”
“In a small community, everybody knows who owns the oil company. Everybody knows who’s on county council and the council administrator probably knows that it’s not going to hurt the administrators long term job prospects to look kindly on an oil company owned by the brother of a councilmember,” Bender said in the interview at his law firm last month.
“Now, it could be entirely innocent. There may be just one company in the world in Chesterfield County that stockpiles 7,500 gallons of gasoline or diesel fuel for delivery on the day after a bid is announced. That seems like a very strange coincidence to me…but I don’t believe based on the records that you’ve obtained from Chesterfield County, that this is a legitimate procurement process designed to give three equally qualified suppliers an equal chance at fulfilling this contract for 7,500 gallons of fuel,” Bender told FOX 46.
‘FOLLOW THE PAPERWORK, DO WHAT YOU GOTTA DO’
We spotted Douglas Curtis’ four-door Ford as it rounded the corner into the parking lot of the county administration building Nov. 3. Curtis backed his truck into a parking spot and pulled a baby blue mask up over his face as we met him as his truck door swung open.
“I think I finally got some answers for you,” Curtis said as he fumbled with a mask covering his face.
We’d emailed Curtis the week before asking for an interview concerning his ethics filings and the county’s $2 million-plus in fuel purchases from the Curtis Oil Company. Curtis returned a phone message two days before the council meeting but would not schedule a time to interview with us.
Curtis confirmed his family sold the Curtis Oil Company in August 2020. However, county spending records show five additional petroleum purchases from Curtis Oil from September 2020 through Jan. 6, 2021 totaling $16,110.
Curtis disclosed his oil company salary starting in 2017 when a change in the state ethics law first required public officials to report private income. Curtis reported his private income in each of his subsequent ethics filings in 2018, 2019, and 2020.
Curtis served as chairman of Chesterfield County Council’s Finance Committee from 2017 through 2020. Curtis said he filed the salary disclosures, but said he’d check with the council clerk on why that information was not contained in his annual filings, “I’ve got so much paperwork after 27 years it’s just hard to find,” Curtis told Barr in November.
The councilman balked at the notion a fuel company could not turn around a 7,500 gallon fuel order in less than 24 hours, “Having a day’s notice that the county suddenly needs 7,500 gallons of fuel, it would seem to only one firm would reasonably be able to pull that off – and that was your firm – was any part of this; could any part of this be viewed as bids being rigged in Curtis Oil’s favor?” Barr asked Vice Chairman Curtis during an interview outside the county administration offices in November.
“Mr. Barr, I don’t think so…Any of our wholesale accounts, they would call it in the day before and then we’d dispatch the trucks out, Dennis (Curtis’ brother) would the next day, so 24 hours is not that unusual. In my opinion,” Curtis said.
Curtis also said he wasn’t aware of the amount of tax dollars awarded to his oil company since 2011 but welcomed the scrutiny.
“And what it looks like here is Curtis Oil earned $2 million of $2.5 million in business; obviously you hold a council position here, you were the finance committee chair. The way these bids were done, some people may look at this and say, man, the fix was in from the beginning,” Barr said to Curtis, “I have no problem with that. Look into it, follow the paperwork, follow the document, do what you got to do,” Curtis replied.
PROCUREMENT RULES BROKEN?
State law allows every local government entity in South Carolina to establish its own procurement code; a rulebook to ensure taxpayers get the best deal and to show the public whom their government is doing business with.
Many local government procurement codes also require government officials competitively bid public business and to show the public what a vendor is paid under a contract. In Chesterfield County, many of those same principals apply. Our review of a decade of spending records found Chesterfield County didn’t follow its own purchasing rules when it spent more than $2.5 million on fuel since 2011.
Our analysis of a decade of Chesterfield County fuel purchases shows the county never publicly posted any fuel business. Emails and fax records obtained by FOX 46 shows the county’s finance director selected the vendors the county purchased bulk fuel from.
Every fuel solicitation between January 2011 and August 2020 included the Curtis Oil Company and Petroleum Traders Corporation. In August 2017 the county began including a third vendor to its monthly solicitations, although the county’s procurement code required administration to solicit three bids.
Each expenditure we reviewed fell under the county’s “Small Purchases” provision. That includes any expenditure below $49,999.99. The “Small Purchases” code is divided into two sections: spending below $10,000 and spending between $10,001 and $49,999.99.
County spending rules allows the county administrator to approve purchases up to $10,000 so long as the administrator solicits quotes from “a minimum of three qualified sources” and the award “shall be made to the lowest responsible/responsive bidder.” The administrator can use fewer than three sources if in the administrator’s “judgment” three qualified sources do not exist.
In more than 700 pages of spending records, the county could not show any competitive bid records for any of the 184 fuel buys below the $10,000 threshold. The county paid Curtis Oil $473,214 in 157 fuel transactions that fell below $10,000 each.
The county paid the next-highest vendor, Energy Distributors, LLC, $47,929 after awarding the company 20 fuel buys below $10,000. A letter dated August 3, 2020 was taped to the front door of the Curtis Oil Company office showing Energy Distributors, LLC took over as owner of the councilman’s oil company that month.
Secretary of State records also show the Curtis Oil Company’s corporation is in a “dissolved” status.
Each of Energy Distributors, LLC’s fuel buys happened in the months after Curtis Oil sold in August 2020. The company sold fuel to the county 20 times and earned $47,929 from Chesterfield County since August 2020, according to county spending records.
Chesterfield County awarded Energy Distributors, LLC all but three “Small Purchases” under $10,000 since December 2020. Curtis Oil was awarded two of the three purchases with the Preston Moore Oil Company, Inc. winning one fuel delivery.
For expenditures between $10,000 and $49,999.99, the procurement code requires the administrator get “written approval” from either the County Council Chairman or the Finance Committee Chairman before the administrator can legally authorize those purchases.
County records show 103 “Small Purchases” petroleum expenditures between the $10,001 to $49,999.99 threshold since 2011. With the largest single fuel expenditure totaling $45,171, none of the fuel purchases required council approval.
Our review of a decade of county spending records shows no written authorization for any of the 103 fuel purchases. Those purchases totaled $2,025,701. The Curtis Oil Company won 80 of the 103 “Small Purchases” contracts for fuel buys falling between $10,001 and $49,999.
The county paid Curtis Oil $1,608,491 under those bulk fuel purchases.
‘NOT GOING TO PLAY GOT YA’
In the days before we showed up to the Nov. 3 Chesterfield County Council meeting, we made multiple attempts to schedule interviews with Chesterfield County leaders. Each message asked to discuss the results of our ‘Fueling Suspicion’ investigation.
Not one county government official in charge of the spending agreed to be interviewed.
County Administrator Tim Eubanks, County Finance Director Michelle Stanley, and County Attorney Heath Ruffner wanted questions regarding specific purchases in writing for 700-plus pages of records obtained through our investigation.
Ruffner did not return a message left at his law firm two days before the council meeting.
“We’ll be happy to answer any questions in a comprehensive and complete manner, send them to us in writing,” Ruffner told FOX 46 during the Nov. 3 council meeting. We sent the county administrator and county finance director detailed points covering our findings in an email on Oct. 28, a week before the Nov. 3 council meeting.
“You’re making a decision to not discuss this with us,” Barr asked Ruffner before the meeting. “No, sir. I’m telling you we’ll be glad to answer any specific questions you have; you haven’t sent us any,” Ruffner, the Cheraw-based attorney answered. “Well, let’s ask them today,” Barr replied. “We’re about to start a council meeting,” Ruffner said from his seat behind the council dais. “I know, we’ve got a few minutes,” Barr told Ruffner.
“I’m not going to play ‘got ya’ with you, okay,” Ruffner said ending the exchange.
News interviews between government officials and journalists are supposed to be organic conversations where a journalist can freely ask questions about a public matter without limiting the conversation to a predetermined set of inquiries.
However, we did send Ruffner, Eubanks, Stanley and the rest of council a comprehensive list of points we wanted to talk about. Each point detailed exactly what we found concerning the county’s lack of documentation showing whether administration followed the Chesterfield County procurement code with regard to the fuel purchases.
The points were spelled out in emails sent on Oct. 28 and again on Nov. 30.
Finance Director Michelle Stanley did provide some insight into the county’s handling of fuel purchasing when FOX 46 Chief Investigator Jody Barr went to the county administration offices Oct. 12 to review spending records provided in response to open records requests.
“I’ve been with Chesterfield County for 12 years and we’ve always done it this way,” Stanley told Barr inside the administration building. Stanley made the statement regarding the rush for fuel deliveries detailed in the bid sheets.
We also found instances of where Curtis Oil was not the lowest bidder and did not get the bid in by deadline, but the county awarded the councilman’s oil company the contract despite that.
A June 29, 2016 solicitation shows Curtis Oil quoted the county $1.92 per gallon for 7,500 gallons of diesel. Petroleum Traders Corporation quoted the county $1.80 per gallon. Spending records show Curtis Oil won the contract and the county paid the councilman’s company $14,734 in a check written the following day.
The county could’ve saved taxpayers $1,000 by awarding the contract to Petroleum Traders Corporation.
County purchasing records show another instance where Curtis Oil won a contract with a higher bid and a bid sent in the day after the deadline. Stanley sent the April 20, 2020 bid sheet to Curtis Oil at 11:25 a.m. and sent the same bid invitation to Petroleum Traders Corporation at 12:50 p.m., nearly 90 minutes later.
Curtis Oil quoted the county a $1.24 price per gallon and Petroleum Traders Corporation quoted the county $1.15 per gallon. When questioned about the purchase, Stanley sent a memorandum to FOX 46, explaining the purchase was changed to an “Emergency Policy Bid” after Petroleum Traders Corporation “couldn’t guarantee the delivery the next morning.”
“Our road department needed the diesel by mid-morning to make sure they had adequate diesel for equipment operators to continue their jobs,” Stanley explained in the memorandum to FOX 46.
The county awarded Curtis Oil four separate contracts under the procurement code’s emergency provision. Each happened in 2020 after the county wrote that in all four instances the lowest bidder could not guarantee delivery of 7,500 gallons of fuel to Chesterfield County within the 23.5-hour window the county demanded the delivery.
Each emergency fuel contract award was because the county would have run out of gasoline and diesel fuel if the delivery was delayed. The procurement code shows the county can waive competitive bidding only when “there exists an immediate threat to public health, welfare, critical economy and efficiency, or safety under emergency conditions and provided that such emergency procurements shall be made with as much competition as is practicable under the circumstances.”
The rulebook also shows the county explain the reason for the emergency by recording “written documentation of the basis for the emergency and for the selection of the particular contractor shall be included in the contract file.”
Stanley could not produce records showing the county documented the reason for any of the emergency purchases until we questioned the purchases during our investigation. “The document with the June 2nd & July 14th bid is a notation I typed for you explaining why the bid was awarded to a higher bidder so you would have a better understanding. This was not in the original documentation you reviewed, Stanley wrote in a Nov. 30 email to FOX 46.
Stanley told Barr in the Oct. 12 open records meeting that the administration would award Curtis Oil contracts even if the vice chairman’s family’s oil company wasn’t the lowest bidder, despite the county procurement code ordering the administration to award to the lowest bidder, “…and the award shall be made to the lowest responsible/responsive bidder,” the procurement code states.
Stanley said if the “difference in two bids” was $800 or less, the county would award the contract to the Curtis Oil Company.
We sent county administrator Eubanks an email on Oct. 28 detailing our findings and to ask the county’s top-appointee to interview with us. Eubanks wouldn’t schedule an interview. Before the Nov. 3 council meeting started, we handed Eubanks the email asking him to schedule time after the meeting to discuss the county’s adherence to its purchasing rules.
“You turn the camera on, I’m done,” Eubanks told Barr and a FOX 46 Photographer Mak Kruse. Eubanks waved Barr into council chambers and tried to block Kruse from entering. Kruse held the camera over Eubanks and Barr explained our findings to the administrator.
Eubanks maintained he wasn’t prepared to discuss specific expenditures.
“I guess we’re having a miscommunication here,” Barr told Eubanks, “I don’t have questions about specific expenditures. I have questions about why there are no records documenting bid solicitations for small purchases between $1 and $10,000. There are no solicitations. There are no records documenting written approvals for small purchases between $10,000 and $50,000.” “Okay,” Eubanks responded.
“These records don’t exist; the county tells me, which would be a clear violation of the county’s procurement policy. So that’s what I want to ask you, where are these records,” Barr asked Eubanks. “Let me talk to the finance director and we’ll see, let me see if we can answer that. I don’t know just right off the whim,” the administrator said.
“Your procurement policy’s saying one thing, but what’s actually happening is something different and that’s what we’re trying to sort out here,” Barr said to Eubanks during the exchange in council chambers.
“Right. Let me do some checking there to see, but I disagree with that part,” Eubanks said.
Eubanks eventually walked away, reminding our FOX 46 crew he would not be interviewed on camera and would only answer questions submitted to him in writing.
“I’m sorry, you just picked a bad day—council meeting—you know council meetings is crazy,” Eubanks said. “Well, I started this last week and not getting a time scheduled has been the problem,” Barr replied. “But I can tell you, if you want to come back, don’t bring him,” Eubanks said referring to Kruse.
“Well, this is what we do is–” Barr told Eubanks before the administrator interrupted, “I know it, but you’re not going to hem me up,” Eubanks said walking away. “I’m not trying to hem you up, I really want to know,” Barr said.
Eubanks did not respond with his follow up conversation with Stanley regarding the points raised during our interview. Barr sent another email to Eubanks, Stanley, and Ruffner on Nov. 29 with more detailed points regarding our findings.
In a call with Stanley on Nov. 30, she confirmed the county did not competitively bid $543,403 in bulk fuel spending on any of the “Small Purchases” up to $10,000. Stanley confirmed those fuel purchases were on a monthly schedule and that Curtis Oil was selected as the vendor.
Stanley also confirmed the county had no written approvals for “Small Purchases” between $10,001 and $49,999, which is required before the administration can spend tax dollars on supplies within that range. Stanley said the county’s complied with that provision because each month she presents an “Accounts Payable Check Register” to council members at each council meeting and each member, which presumably included Vice Chairman Douglas Curtis, signs off approving the previous month’s spending.
But, by the time council sees and approves the spending the purchases already happened.
We filed a South Carolina Freedom of Information Act request with the county on Dec. 2 for access to the approved monthly check registers and records showing the approvals. The county has 10 business days to respond.
Chesterfield County no longer purchases fuel this way. The county started purchasing fuel from vendors listed on the state’s Division of Procurement Services’ statewide contract database. Purchasing fuel through the statewide contract has eliminated the need for the county to continue its monthly fuel purchasing system.
We asked Ruffner whether he intends to investigate the findings detailed in our ‘Fueling Suspicion’ report. Ruffner did not respond to that question.
We sent an email to each member of the Chesterfield County council asking for an interview concerning our findings. None of the elected officials responded.
“Would you be disappointed to know that the county administration might not have followed procurement policy,” Barr asked Curtis during the Nov. 3 interview. “Yes, sir. Because we try to hold them (solicitations) all; either with RFPs or bid requests for proposals,” Curtis responded.
“What do you plan to do to figure out how this happened,” Barr asked, “I don’t know that I’m in a position to do it, but the county attorney is don’t you think,” Curtis replied. “Have you asked him,” Barr asked, “No sir. I didn’t think there was a need to, Mr. Barr.”
When we suggested Curtis discuss our findings with the county attorney, the councilman agreed, “I understand. I do not like that because I have tried very hard to stay away from even the inkling of impropriety,” Curtis said.