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Column: University spends tax money meant for veterans’ care on bus, furniture

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Over the last four fiscal years, $1.4 million in tax dollars flowed through three state social-service agencies to an equestrian center operated by Lander University in Greenwood.
But relatively little was spent to directly help S.C. citizens served by those state agencies. In fact, not one cent of $500,000 that the small, public liberal-arts school received last fiscal year was spent for a mandated veterans’ therapy program that was supposed to operate at the equestrian center but never was implemented.
Instead, that money was spent largely on routine operating expenses for the equestrian center, which is used by the university’s student equestrian team. The money purchased a bus and renovated an off-campus building that the school bought in 2017, according to school records.
Although the $1.4 million to Lander represents a small part of the multibillion-dollar state budget, it reveals a larger problem: tax dollars funneled by lawmakers through obscure budget provisos and used for purposes outside the provisos – with little, if any, oversight or accountability.
Former S.C. Rep. Mike Pitts, a Laurens County Republican who resigned from office in January, pushed for state funding through a budget proviso to launch the Lander veterans’ therapy program in fiscal 2018. At the same time, his sister, Rhonda Pitts, a licensed professional counselor who retired in 2017 from the S.C. Vocational Rehabilitation Department (SCVRD), positioned herself to manage the program.
The $500,000 that Mike Pitts, a retired police officer and Lander alumnus who served on the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, helped secure was directed through SCVRD to Lander.
The budget proviso required that the money be spent on the “operation of the Equestrian Center,” and to “create a Herd 2 Human pilot program,” a veterans’ therapy program operated by Jeff Patterson of Clinton, Mont.
Another collective $900,000 was directed over the prior three fiscal years through the state disabilities and mental health departments for the equestrian center, though budget provisos authorizing the funds didn’t give details on the purpose of the appropriations. A spreadsheet provided this week to The Nerve shows that the annual $300,000 appropriation for those years was spent on center operations.
According to school records and officials, the proviso money, which largely came from state surplus funds, was the main revenue source for the equestrian center from 2015 through last fiscal year.
Patterson, the creator of the Herd 2 Human program, told The Nerve that Lander officials never paid him any of the proviso money or informed him how specifically they intended to use the funds.
Under his program, veterans interact with provided horses, though they don’t ride on the animals, to help them deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a serious mental health condition affecting many of the nation’s vets.
“The bottom line is, they (Lander) got $500,000, and there was never any boots on the ground,” Patterson said. “There were no veterans helped.”
Of the $500,000 it received last fiscal year through the proviso, Lander spent $321,690 on the operating budget of the equestrian center, according to a university spreadsheet provided to The Nerve. The spreadsheet showed $177,725 spent under the heading titled, “PTSD (H2H) Start Up,” including $76,355 for maintenance/renovation, $61,327 for vehicles, $18,744 for furniture and fixtures, $12,369 for safety upfit, $7,200 for leasing property and $1,700 for travel.
Adam Taylor, the university president’s chief of staff, said the $76,355 primarily was for the “upfitting of the office space for the Herd 2 Human program” at the former American Legion building in Greenwood that the university bought in late 2017. It is 7 miles from the equestrian center.
Taylor said that project was part of a plan to move the veterans’ services office from the main campus to the American Legion building, adding the “Herd 2 Human and the PTSD pilot project were part of it, so we’re kind of on pause until we figure out what to do.”
Although the proviso required that Lander create Patterson’s program, Taylor said the university was planning to move forward with a PTSD equestrian-therapy program for veterans, noting two university positions and a clinical consultant’s position were proposed.
But he said nothing happened after the state lawmakers decided not to renew the budget proviso for this fiscal year and instead provide $500,000 to SCVRD to fund its own “equine therapy” program.
Patterson has filed complaints with the S.C. Office of Inspector General and the state procurement office. Inspector General Brian Lamkin says his office is investigating.

Rick Brundrett is news editor of The Nerve, an online publication of the S.C. Policy Council. Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.