When The State broke the news last week that Columbia City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine may have mishandled a city loan to a local business some 12 years ago, an immediate question rose in the minds of many Columbians: Why the heck was a city councilwoman serving as a closing attorney on a city loan in the first place?
Devine, a founder of the firm Jabber & Isaac, works primarily as a real estate lawyer. In 2004, she represented a couple who borrowed $200,000 in federal money through a City of Columbia commercial loan program. The borrowers defaulted, but because Devine failed to follow proper procedures for filing the mortgage with the county, the city can’t recoup the money.
Since she joined Council in 2002, Devine tells Free Times, she’s handled one other commercial loan from the city, plus roughly 20 real estate transactions for people getting home loans from the city.
“Under South Carolina law, the borrower has the right to choose their own attorney, so they all chose me to do their closings,” Devine said via email.
But some of Devine’s own colleagues think she’s out of line.
“An attorney has the legal responsibility to represent their clients against the interests of the people on the other side of the table,” says Councilman Cameron Runyan, a frequent foe of Devine. “You’ve got a councilwoman negotiating against the [city staff].”
And Mayor Steve Benjamin, who is also an attorney, has made it clear he’s concerned about the issue.
“There are a lot of questions we have to ask to get to the bottom of it,” Benjamin told radio host Keven Cohen last week. “We’re not done with the conversation.”
So, did Devine violate any laws or policies?
When it comes to the particular commercial loan in question, it doesn’t appear she ran afoul of federal or city policy.
The city ethics policy, revised in 2012, doesn’t address the issue.
City staffers checked with the federal Economic Development Administration, where the funding for the loan came from. According to an email to the city manager from Tina Herbert, who runs the city’s Office of Business Opportunities, the agency said “it is not a conflict for a council person who is also an attorney to close an EDA loan.” Herbert adds, “If council approved loans, or if applicants were able to appeal to council if they were not happy with the result of the [loan committee’s] decision, there would be a conflict of interest.”
But ethics expert John Crangle, director of the South Carolina chapter of Common Cause, believes there’s a more basic problem with Devine representing borrowers who get money from the city.
“I still think it raises a serious professional question as to whether or not a lawyer can represent conflicting interests,” Crangle says.
Devine says she doesn’t see a conflict of interest in her serving as an attorney on city loans. In fact, she says, she asked city leaders that question when she first joined Council.
“I asked the question early on and was told I could,” Devine tells Free Times. “I did not get an official opinion from the [State] Ethics Commission, but E.W. did closings and Johnson, Toal and Battiste also did closings.”
She’s referring to the law firms of two former council members: Luther Battiste, who served several terms on council; and E.W. Cromartie, a former councilman and attorney who stepped down in 2010 after being indicted for tax fraud. Cromartie served time in federal prison and has since surrendered his law license.
There are certain steps an attorney must take when there’s a potential conflict of interest, says John Freeman, a retired professor of law at the University of South Carolina and an expert in legal ethics.
“To the extent there is or could be a conflict with the city, I think it would be appropriate for her to have a written waiver of conflict,” Freeman says. “What it does is put everyone on notice that there’s a potential conflict here.” This isn’t a new issue, Freeman says: “Go to Matthew 6:24 and see what it says about serving two masters. The problem’s been around for a long time,” he says, adding, “I’m not saying it does exist in this case.”
Another issue, Freeman says, is that when it comes to lending public money, everyone working on such cases should be extra-cautious: “When there’s a goof up, get it straightened out fast and fairly,” he says.
Runyan, Devine’s colleague, says he’s asking that the city amend its ethics policy to prevent council members from taking on cases that the city is involved in.
“I have asked that we amend our ethics policy, because apparently we need to explicitly bar this,” he says. “I am asking for an amendment so this does never happen again.”
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