You know who I feel like?” asks Mt. Pleasant builder Bob Miller. “I feel like Coprenious (sic). Go look it up.”
Miller has been a vocal opponent of the Central Mount Pleasant (CMP) project, a 110-acre, residential and retail, “urban infill” development approved by Town Council last May between Hungryneck Boulevard and Rifle Range Road. He called councilmembers last January to encourage sending the proposal back to the Planning Commission, the first step in the approval process, and the September settlement of an anonymous lawsuit against the city by the Save Hungryneck Corridor LLC included his name. On Aug. 8, Town Councilmember Ken Glasson publicly accused an anonymous person of offering him a quarter-million dollar bribe (last May) to vote against the project, and the FBI started making calls soon thereafter. Miller revealed on Aug. 10 that he was the alleged briber, denying the accusations and claiming his opposition to CMP was based solely on concerns over traffic and density.
“The church hired Coprenious to fix the calendar … and doing that he discovered the Earth’s not the center of the universe, but he waited until he was on his deathbed to go public because everybody would attack him and crucify him,” says Miller. “That’s sort of how I feel, like Coprenious. Anyone opposed to one of these developments is going to get crucified.”
Chatting with Miller on the phone, he comes off as an amiable, friendly guy. “Just peachy,” as Town Councilmember Joe Bustos puts it. Never mind that minutes into the conversation Miller warns this reporter, “If you ever cross me, I’ll never talk to you again.” Perhaps it’s necessary to cut him some slack and recognize the stress he’s under lately. The FBI won’t disclose the status of their investigation, and a steady stream of developers and politicians have contacted the press to share stories of being bullied by him over the last 20 years.
As the longest-serving member of the Charleston County Planning Commission in history (1986 to 1997, and again since 2002), Bob Miller is in a position of power regarding permit applications, and he’s purportedly chummy with Mayor Harry Hallman and Mt. Pleasant Planning Commission Chairman Steve Brock.
Miller has long been accused of using his political clout to strong-arm developers into hiring him on as a consultant, consistently opposing the projects of people he establishes as enemies. Developer Vince Graham wrote in a May 26 letter to the Moultrie News that Miller threatened him, saying he’d never get Town Council’s approval for I’On without his help. “We must be on guard against the racketeering entrepreneur who seeks to sabotage innovation and reduce competition,” wrote Graham, who points out that Brock and Miller both opposed I’On, yet Brock now lives there. “Vince Graham wants to be Jesus, and [Town Councilmember] Joe Bustos wants to be mayor,” says Miller.
After Brickyard Plantation developer Jeff Coggins fired Miller from the project and sued him for purportedly stealing trees for his own yard, the project encountered serious difficulties zoning a 10-acre plot at the neighborhood’s entrance for retail. Coggins now faces continued hurdles with the County Planning Commission (on which Miller sits) in getting his Long Savannah project approved in West Ashley. As a former consultant for Carolina Park, Miller has opposed competing projects like developer Tex Smalls’ Oakland Plantation shopping center (Miller asked for $400,000 to work as a consultant on Oakland Plantation and was denied). He’s has even inspired a bumper sticker that reads, “Honk If You’ve Been Bullied by Bob,” that’s now showing up on cars around town.
“Bob’s a blow-hard who likes to run his mouth and thinks people should listen to him, and I don’t,” says Councilmember Nick Collins, who also contacted the FBI about being threatened by Miller. “He said, ‘Look man, if you don’t get your act together then I’ll ruin your political career.’ I just laughed it off.”
Former Mt. Pleasant Mayor Cheryll Woods-Flowers also alleges bully tactics from Miller. “His attitude was, ‘If you want to be in political office then you have to be part of my team,” she says. “I don’t think it’s in the best public interest for one person to have that much political power or to believe that they do.”
Miller’s name made headlines last month after Councilmember Glasson said in an Aug. 8 Post and Courier story that a man had offered him a $250,000 investment in his financial planning business if he voted against CMP. He said the person threatened to ruin his political career and damage his business, but Glasson never revealed a name.
In the days that followed, Councilmen Nick Collins and Paul Gawrych both publicly acknowledged that they’d also been contacted by the same person. On Aug. 10, Bob Miller accused those three councilmembers, as well as Bustos, of attacking him with a “smear campaign,” outing himself as the subject of the bribe accusation. He claimed the allegations are the result of a lawsuit filed against Mt. Pleasant on July 9 by Save Hungryneck Corridor LLC, demanding that Town Council reverse its vote to approve the project. Approval of the development by Council went against the recommendation of the Mt. Pleasant Planning Commission (not the County Commission that Miller sits on).
Commission Chairman Brock explains that after the Planning Commission’s initial decision not to approve CMP, developer Anthony McAlister returned with a scaled-down proposal. Because public hearings had ceased, the Commission voted 5-3 not to accept new information. “I understand that it didn’t seem fair to him (McAlister), so our motion to disapprove included a motion to bring it back the next month, waiving all fees and waiting periods,” explains Brock.
Town Council decided not to send it back to Commission, and it was during that time that Miller first became involved by making calls to councilmen. “I was hearing there’d be 15,000 new car trips a day. I’m a citizen of Mt. Pleasant, and I have a right to voice my concerns,” says Miller. Brock cites the progress Mt. Pleasant has made since “being up to our eyeballs in traffic at the turn of the century,” and worries that CMP will cause new congestion.
The CMP debate has pitted Commission Chair Brock and Councilmember Bustos bitterly against each other. Brock argues that Town Council consistently ignores the recommendations of the non-elected Commission he chairs, violating state law when they amend the Comprehensive Plan governing new developments without the Planning Commission’s approval.
“The Planning Commission does not approve or disapprove anything,” Bustos counters. “They recommend to council how they feel about it, and that goes to the planning committee (made up of councilmembers) who look at it and turn in a recommendation to full council. They (Commission) wanted to stonewall the CMP submittal, in my opinion, so the planning committee did what they had to do in order to keep this thing moving.”
The city and Save Hungryneck Corridor LLC settled the lawsuit on Sept. 17 without publicly revealing the people behind it, but the settlement curiously included the stipulation that Bob Miller would join the LLC.
“He had to have some knowledge or association, because he knew exactly where to go to become part of the lawsuit,” says Bustos. “He denied that in the newspaper, but I don’t think he went cruising attorneys’ offices to find out.” Miller says the lawyers thought he should be part of it, and that he had nothing to hide.
Bustos offered $500 of his own money to out the responsible party, implying to the Post and Courier that Brock played a role in the lawsuit’s planning. Brock responded with allegations of McCarthyism by Bustos, calling the question “innuendo” and stating that he was not and had never been a member of the LLC. “If I were going to sue the town, I’d put my name on it. I think it’s cowardly not to put your name on a lawsuit,” says Brock. “I had a suspicion a lawsuit was coming, but I had no knowledge of it.”
After the lawsuit was filed, Councilmember Glasson decided to go public with the bribe allegation. He’d already told Bustos, who contacted the FBI in May, but little seems to have come from that initial call by August. Miller adamantly denies offering Glasson a bribe, but says he raised money for the campaigns of Councilmembers Glasson and Collins with the understanding that they’d vote however Mayor Hallman did on major projects for at least two years. Miller claimed in the Post and Courier that he raised $11,000 for Glasson, who said it was closer to $2,000. Glasson’s campaign finance records associate $4,000 with Miller.
“He (Miller) said to let him know how much I needed to raise for a successful campaign. I didn’t think his providing me with some sort of monetary contribution would warrant me submitting a vote for something I didn’t believe in,” says Glasson. “I’m going to vote based on the merits of the project and not what developer is behind it.”
Miller argues that when somebody asks him for money, he expects they’ll vote in line with their pre-election standpoints. “It’s like telling a congressman, ‘I’ll support you if you support Reagan or if you’ll support cutting taxes,'” says Miller. “I was confident that Hallman was going to do the right thing, and the only reason I raised money for them (Glasson and Collins) was so they would vote with the mayor. Everybody who gives money (to a politician) expects that the guy’s going to vote the way they want. It’s about as innocent as that, and it goes back to 1776 when we started politics in the United States.”
Glasson’s and Miller’s accounts of their short-lived relationship differ greatly. Glasson says he’s only met Miller three times, while Miller claims they “had lunch several times,” beginning on Oct. 4, 2006, when he says Glasson asked him to invest in “one of those same Ponzi schemes that Al Parrish is going to jail for.” Miller says that Glasson and his partner met with him again for lunch on Oct. 30 and were unable to explain how they got the high returns they claimed on their investments.
On Feb. 4, 2007, Miller claims that Glasson arrived at his office “white as a sheet and sweating in February,” talking about how his partner had left town and was upset about issues at home. “Clearly the guy had problems, and he wound up leaving again because I still wasn’t going to invest anything in him,” Miller says.
After council’s initial vote on CMP, Glasson says Miller asked him to come to his office. Miller says Glasson called him, inquiring about allegations he’d heard from Bustos that Miller was claiming Glasson had been bought off. “Based on that phone call, we met in May, for about 35 minutes,” says Miller. “We talked for six to eight minutes about the project (CMP), and then we started talking about his investment.” Miller also says Bustos called and threatened him, on April 17, asking if Miller said he had been bought off. “He said, ‘You have no influence on council and we’re going to do what we want to do,'” claims Miller. “I asked, ‘If I don’t have any influence then why did you call me?'”
If the FBI decides Miller is guilty of bribing Glasson, he could be in a heap of trouble. South Carolina law states that “whoever corruptly gives, offers or promises to any executive, legislative or judicial officer … any gift or gratuity whatever, with intent to influence his act, vote, opinion, decision or judgment on any matter, question, cause or proceeding which may be pending or may by law come or be brought before him in his official capacity, shall be punished by imprisonment in the State Penitentiary at hard labor not exceeding five years or by a fine not exceeding three thousand dollars and imprisonment in jail not exceeding one year.”
A District Nine Solicitor’s office representative explains that the normal process requires a crime being reported to the police, “and then upon the showing of probable cause, a warrant is issued.” Although no local charges have been filed, Miller recently acquired the services of Andy Savage, the Lowcountry’s own Johnnie Cochran (he’s also representing Al Parish, the Muslim bomber kids, the mom who left her babies in the oven-hot car, etc…), in the event that he needs a defense attorney.
“Glasson’s one of the most corrupt people I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Miller. “I thought he’d been bought off. Here’s a guy who’s been trying to get my money for six months, has a partner who went off to Canada, who’s going through a divorce, and is talking crazy all over the place. Why would I give somebody $250,000 to vote against something? That’s f*#king insane, because he’s insane. He’s a desperate man.”
When asked about the figures of his campaign financing, Glasson is fuzzy about how much came from whom, perhaps due to his use of a third party to collect donations. “The last bit of money I collected was from Bob Miller,” he says. “He said, ‘Let me know how much help you need at the end,’ and that’s where the $2,000 came from.”
Miller was actually responsible for $4,000, with four checks written from companies he’s associated with on Sept. 26, 2006. However, an Aug. 16 Post and Courier story states, “Disclosure forms filed for the Sept. 19 town election show that Glasson raised $13,455 for his campaign,” the same number that Glasson initially quoted to City Paper. However, on Jan. 16, 2007, Glasson filed a final disclosure form reporting a $2,000 donation from Anthony McAlister, CMP’s developer, dated Oct. 27, upping the total to $15,455. CMP first came to the Planning Commission two weeks prior, on Oct. 18.
Glasson says McAlister had verbally agreed to that donation long before, and with it he broke even. Councilmember Collins says he also received a donation from McAlister after the election, but returned the money because he didn’t need it.
Throughout a summer where the city he leads has been sued and councilmembers possibly threatened or bribed, Mayor Hallman has remained surprisingly mute on the issue, once referring to it as a “squabble among councilmembers.” He’s said that he’ll “weigh in” if charges are filed against Miller, but the pair’s long history has left some scratching their heads over his silence.
In a 2003 interview with the Post and Courier, Hallman commended Miller’s work at Hobcaw Creek Plantation, Brickyard Plantation, and the Patriot’s Point golf course, saying that Carolina Park owner Ben Marino’s decision to hire Miller as a consultant showed that “Mr. Marino is a very astute businessman.” Councilmember Bustos claims Hallman opposed that project until Miller became involved. Miller has contributed to each of Hallman’s campaigns and claims they’ve been friends since the ’80s.
Miller told the Moultrie News on Aug. 29 that he occasionally brings the mayor a “Coke or a coffee” and chats for about 15 minutes, as well as meeting him for happy hour “maybe 10 times” over the years. There’s speculation that his reappointment to the County Planning Commission in 2002 by commissioner Joe McKeown was at the behest of Mayor Hallman. (McKeown did not return City Paper‘s requests for comment, and Hallman declined.)
“I was reappointed because I’m the most qualified person, with a 14-year track record of service,” says Miller.
Town Council recently voted to extend the terms of all councilmembers and the mayor by 14 months, coinciding with general elections and hopefully encouraging a voter turnout better than the dismal 12 to 15 percent that typically show up for council elections. Bustos voted against the shift, and says he’s considered resigning next September when his four years are up. “It’s wrong for politicians to extend their own terms, and it was done without one public hearing,” he says.
Bustos questions the connection between Mayor Hallman, Brock, and Miller, and jabs continue across those lines. Both Brock and Miller claim Bustos’ adamant stance on the election dates reflects his desire to run for mayor, especially while the seat’s hot, a claim Bustos denies. He does admit bringing up the idea of removing Brock from the Planning Commission, however, during a pre-council executive session.
A Conflicted Life
Central Mt. Pleasant is the rare large-scale development that hasn’t faced outspoken public opposition. “This kind of infill is exactly the kind of development we need that will allow people to take transit, walk, bike, or otherwise get out of their cars,” says Coastal Conservation League Director Dana Beach, whose organization is often a thorn in the side of developers.
Miller claims he “never talked to anybody from CMP,” but councilmembers believe he did. His track record shows he has opposed projects he’s been denied consulting work with, and has a penchant for lawsuits and harsh words with those who cross him. His wife Jill served in 2004 as the director of the Charleston County Board of Elections, her prerequisites being a local Republican leader and a reporter on Channel 5. When she was asked to resign after a year, a letter to Rep. Chip Limehouse from Bob Miller’s fax machine was circulated that called for the immediate resignation of all election board members, complete with “talking points” on each person. Current Board of Elections chair Dan Martin was called a “scam artist” and county Human Resources Director Stan Curry an “incompetent black.” Mike Surles got labeled an “egomaniac/power-grabbing midget” who is “using position to make connection with women,” while current member Carolyn Lecque was the “most corrupt.” The letter concludes by stating “Chas. Co. elections still controlled by corrupt black Democrats.”
“I haven’t seen it, if I wrote it,” says Miller. “I don’t type. Jill might have wrote it for me. But after that we got out of politics.”
“The Miller family has hurt a lot of people over the years,” says Elections chair Dan Martin, who also contacted the FBI recently over claims that Miller threatened him during the conflict over Jill’s resignation. “He said he was going to ruin my career and get me thrown off the Election Commission.”
Bustos laments the interruption the lawsuit and bribery allegations have caused in Town Council’s regular work, questioning how any individual can become powerful enough to disrupt the normal process of running a city. “He’s been enabled to do this,” says Bustos. “There’s a web of deceit over Mt. Pleasant, where there’s this whole thing about developers having to have the right architect or the right consultant to get projects approved. How does he think he can go to people and say, ‘You need to hire me?'”
Miller says the movement against him is a result of his knowledge of ethics violations and a fear among councilmembers that he’d bring them to light. “There’s three councilmen that I scare to death, and I scare them because they did something wrong, and that’s Glasson, Gawrych, and Bustos,” says Miller. “They’ve got to keep on attacking me to prevent me from coming after them. Sooner or later, they’re going to have to stand up and answer for some of the stuff they’ve said in the paper.”
Nonetheless, Miller has at the very least now associated himself with an LLC that sued the city over a development popular with the surrounding community. He has allegedly circulated derogatory comments about election board members and inspired a bumper sticker for his detractors to commiserate with. “For the last 30 years, Bob’s been a bully in the playground,” says Councilmember Collins. “Someone down the road has given him this fake power, and he thinks he can use it, specifically on the new guys. It had to end, and now that time has come.”
Despite a possible FBI investigation and front page Post and Courier stories with allegations of bribery, Miller has yet to face any charges locally. The solicitor’s office can’t handle the case until the police bring it to them, and Glasson has refrained from contacting local authorities outside of the newspaper. County Council Chair Tim Scott said on Aug. 22 that an “informal investigation” was underway by County Council, but says now that “the inquiry did not turn up any pertinent information.” Mayor Hallman also continues to remain silent.
A Save Snee Farm LLC lawsuit, similar to the Save Hungryneck Corridor suit in its charge that Council ignores the Planning Commission, is still unsettled, and two citizens who spoke against the Snee Farm expansion were called in last week for depositions. “To exercise your First Amendment rights and then have to suffer through this kind of thing is awful,” comments Steve Brock. “If we can’t talk to each other with some dignity and civility, then it’s all lost.”
For the rest of Mt. Pleasant’s governing bodies, business as usual may take some time, but our own possible Abramoff scandal may eventually clear up what seems to be a long-standing problem in over-asserted political influence east of the Cooper, caused by campaigns funded primarily by developers.
“Mt. Pleasant is a candy store for developers, yet this is still, in so many ways, a small town,” says Brock. “It’s hard sometimes to put up with the pettiness when there are so many problems.”
It’s now up to the FBI to determine what’s considered petty.
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