Shaum testifies in County, Preston case

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By Stan Welch

Monday, Nov. 5 – One of Joey Preston’s more controversial actions in the closing days of his administration was the awarding of a three year consulting contract to Alison Schaum, owner of Palmetto Agricultural Consulting, and daughter of the County Councilman Ron Wilson. Monday, the events surrounding that action were the subject of courtroom testimony by Schaum in the Anderson County lawsuit to rescind Preston’s severance package and retrieve the $1.2 million he was awarded in the fall of 2008.

The County contends that the contract, which changed Schaum’s working agreement with the county from a modest month to month arrangement to a three year contract with a lucrative buyout clause, was a quid pro quo action related to Wilson’s subsequent presentation of the severance package at a November Council meeting.

Schaum testified that when she decided to start the consulting business, despite little or no experience in the field of sustainable agriculture, she didn’t tell her father. (That testimony runs counter to an earlier interview with Ron Wilson in The Journal, when he said his daughter came to him and told him of her plans. He said he warned her of the political firestorm she was risking, but said he told her to go ahead.)

Schaum further testified that when she went to keep the appointment she had made with Joey Preston to pitch her idea for sustainable agriculture in Anderson County, she didn’t reveal her relationship to Wilson either.

She testified that Preston told her to prepare a presentation, or pitch, which she made to a group of agricultural and marketing experts. Following the presentation, Preston told her to put together a proposal, which she did.

She testified she prepared the contract herself, with some information from the internet. Her original contract called for her to receive twenty dollars an hour for her consulting services; a figure that was increased to $65 an hour by the time the contract was signed. Schaum, under Preston attorney Lane Davis’s tutelage, explained that at the time of her original proposal, she thought she would be a county employee, with insurance benefits and access to “the full resources of the county” in establishing her program.

Schaum said she worked on establishing a farm to school link, promoting the sale of local agricultural products to the various school districts, as well as other programs designed to help stimulate the local economy as it related to sustainable agriculture.

Both Schaum, and Preston, who followed her on the witness stand later in the morning, testified that her efforts the first year warranted the extended contract, which Preston signed approximately two weeks before Schaum’s father, Ron Wilson, presented the severance agreement unexpectedly at the November 18,2008 meeting.

Schaum was asked, according to her testimony, to draft an amended contract, which she again did without help. She said her mother and father had no knowledge of the contract’s amendment and expansion, and that she, Schaum, had no knowledge of the ongoing negotiations concerning Preston’s potential contract buyout.

The amended contract provided Schaum with a graduated fee scale, with the hourly rate increasing by ten dollars an hour in each year of the contract. One provision that Troy Tessier, attorney for the county, brought to light, was the amount of compensation in the event the contract was terminated by the County.

The amendments Schaum proposed called for payment of three years worth of fees at the agreed upon levels, and based on a presumed work load of twenty hours a week. That provision would have paid Schaum approximately a quarter million dollars. But Preston increased the presumed workload to thirty hours a week before signing the contract, making the contract worth almost $400,000, if terminated.