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Candidate for sheriff addresses financial woes

Posted: September 14, 2010 3:01 p.m.
Updated: September 15, 2010 5:00 a.m.
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Sheriff candidate Sammie Tucker Jr. has come forward about criticisms concerning his personal finances.

There was a very good chance Sammie Tucker Jr.'s home -- the one he has owned and lived in on Springhill Road southeast of Camden since 1996 -- would have been sold to the highest bidder on the steps of the Kershaw County Courthouse Sept. 7.

The home and its 1.45 acres of land was being foreclosed by Bank of America.

Another home being foreclosed would not make headlines. According to RealEstateIndustryNews.com, nearly 4 million homes in the U.S. were foreclosed in 2009. A website used to help buyers find foreclosed homes to purchase listed 32 such properties available in Kershaw County as of Tuesday morning.

But Sammie Tucker Jr. isn't just any Kershaw County resident. He's a sitting member of Kershaw County Council and the Democratic nominee for Kershaw County Sheriff. And this isn't the first time speculation about Tucker's finances has come up. When he announced his intention to run for sheriff this January, he confirmed that he had filed for bankruptcy in 2003.

According to documents obtained through the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of South Carolina, Tucker filed for Chapter 11 personal bankruptcy to stave off more than nearly $1 million worth of debt connected to his ownership of Tucker Trucking & Sons (TTS). He also owed more than $200,000 in property and payroll taxes to the state of South Carolina and the federal government. Tucker also filed Chapter 11 corporate bankruptcy for the trucking company. Some of the debt overlapped the two cases and they were allowed to be jointly administered. The joint case was later converted to Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Chapter 11 bankruptcy allows for reorganization of a company while Chapter 7 governs the liquidation of a company which then ceases to exist.

Behind the scenes, critics have intimated that Tucker's personal financial troubles mean he shouldn't be on county council's finance committee nor be in charge of the $4 million Kershaw County Sheriff's Office budget.

Monday, Tucker decided to answer those critics by discussing the history of both the personal and business bankruptcies he filed in 2003 and last month's near-foreclosure of his home. In an exclusive C-I interview, Tucker said he is no longer in bankruptcy but is still working through a court-ordered payment plan; with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and S.C. Department of Revenue (SCDOR) to deal with tax liens and back taxes; and with Bank of America to keep his home.

Tucker also said none of that has any bearing on his ability to help shape the county's financial decisions nor operating the sheriff's office budget should he be elected in November.

"I want people to know the true story. That I have never tried to hide it or shied away from it and that I'm taking care of it," Tucker said.

Bankruptcies

Tucker said his story starts in 2001 when, he said, America was headed for a recession.

"The trucking industry had been doing very well in the 1990s and diesel fuel had been at a $1 a gallon," said Tucker. "But then the recession hit and diesel fuel went up to $3 a gallon. It really hurt the transportation industry. There were others I worked with who were going out of business."

Then, in 2001, a fire broke out a Lachicotte Road, Lugoff, location where TTS kept its vehicles. Five of its trucks -- each purchased for around $150,000, Tucker said -- were destroyed.

"I asked the sheriff, who was Steve McCaskill, to call in SLED and they determined there was no sabotage, it wasn't self-inflicted. It was just one of those freak things," Tucker said.

Five trucks were then out of commission, not earning any revenue while Tucker still had to make payments on them. There was insurance, he said, but only for the trucks' fair-market values, which were less than what he'd owed since he purchased them in 1998, 2000 and 2001. He said it took him eight months to settle with his insurance company.

"And I was still having to pay insurance premiums and vehicle payments," said Tucker. "It was the beginning of a downward cycle."

Later that same year, another of his trucks was in a bad wreck at the I-20/I-77 interchange in northeast Richland County. The offending driver in the other vehicle was killed while Tucker's driver was seriously injured.

"He's got lifelong injuries," he said.

Six trucks were out of commission.

"Another caught fire off I-26 near Asheville, N.C.," Tucker said.

That was seven.

"And then another was a total loss due to driver error," said Tucker. "Thank goodness he wasn't injured."

A total of eight trucks gone due to circumstances, he said, he had no control over.

By 2003, Tucker said, he had been fighting with creditors and insurance companies for two years. He decided to declare bankruptcy.

"During those two years, I was trying to make payments, but I wanted to pay my employees and I never missed a payday," said Tucker.

Things were so bad, he said, he had to make a choice: pay his employees or pay employment taxes.

"I made a decision to pay my employees and not the employment taxes," Tucker admitted, which would later get him in trouble with SCDOR and the IRS.

He said it just came to a point where he had no other choice but to declare bankruptcy.

What that allowed him to do, he said, was -- through the courts -- to come up with a payment plan to repay his creditors.

In September 2003, Tucker filed a Plan of Reorganization in connection with his original, personal bankruptcy case. In it, Tucker stated he had 14 employees but was reducing the staff to six. Sixteen classes of debt -- in some cases, multiple debts were owed to the same creditor -- were listed. In each case, terms for paying back what was owed was outlined. For example, Tucker owed one creditor money connected with two dump trucks and seven trailers. He was allowed to find someone to purchase the two trucks. Five of the trailers were leased and he terminated the leases. For the other two trailers, he was allowed to pay off the debt over 48 months at 7 percent interest. In other cases, he was to continue making the same payments he was before.

When the two cases were jointly administrated, the TTS case took lead. That case appears to have been handled mostly through individual court-ordered settlements and further orders under the Chapter 7 conversion. Tucker's personal bankruptcy case was closed in August 2004; the TTS case almost exactly a year later.

With that, TTS was dissolved. Tucker currently owns or partly owns two businesses. One is DS Trucking, now a one-man operation consisting only of Tucker himself. The other is Drive Safe Driving Academy in Lugoff, which he owns with a partner.

Being out of bankruptcy, however, hasn't absolved Tucker from repaying his debts. He said the repayment program the court has ordered is not one available to all debtors.

"You can't just get in it; you have to be accepted," he explained.

Tucker said he recognizes that the situation isn't going to resolve itself on its own.

"It's not going to go away until I pay it all in full or the debts are forgiven. I'm following the court order and am almost finished," said Tucker, while not indicating how long that might actually be.

House and taxes

The one thing the court-ordered payment plan doesn't cover is taxes. Tucker said he is having to work with SCDOR and the IRS directly to deal with the thousands of dollars worth of back payroll taxes he owes.

"I sat down with them and said 'I can't afford this,'" said Tucker. "They attacked my personal assets: my home, my land, my vehicles."

That, he said, is how tax liens got placed on his home.

According to documents filed at the Kershaw County Courthouse, Tucker took out a second $60,000 lien on his Sprinhill Road home in April 2002. He already had a prior, "senior" lien for $142,880 connected to his purchase of the home in Nov. 1996. In a complaint filed in late April, Bank of America argued that Tucker had not made any payments since December 2008 and owed more than $32,000. The company then assessed late, legal and other fees for a total debt of $41,000. The documents mention the IRS' tax lien of $103,350 and a just under $12,000 tax lien by SCDOR on the home.

Tucker said he was in a "Catch 22."

"The liens from the IRS and my creditors didn't allow for a lot of maneuverability due to the decisions I made seven years ago," said Tucker said. "Not only has the economy been bad, but I've been trying to work two jobs and I have two kids that are going through college. A priority of mine was making sure they are being educated."

Even in such situations, lenders are often willing to work with home owners, according to Rhonda Marcum, executive director of the Mortgage Bankers Association of the Carolinas.

"We are in times where our lendes are most eager to work with borrowers who are delinquent, or anticipate they will be delinquent," Marcum said. "It has never been the desire of the lender to foreclose on a property and remains an action of last resort."

That appears to have been what happened in mid-August just as a legal notice of the pending sale was about to be published.

"I was already working with Bank of America when that notice was going to be published. I worked with them and came to a settlement to keep it out of default," said Tucker.

He said that prior to the current recession, he was never late on his mortgage even while his bankruptcies were being worked out.

"I am current and continue to work with Bank of America to make my payments," he said.

Tucker also said he is current on all local taxes.

"There is not one time I haven't filed my taxes and I owe Kershaw County not one dime," Tucker said. "I've never been late on personal property taxes and have always kept current the taxes on my home, land and vehicles."

'An ugly monster'

Tucker said he is aware of "packets" sent out to the media during the years since his first campaign by anonymous critics claiming he should not be in charge of any county finances. He also said he has always kept his campaign workers in the loop about his personal financial troubles.

"I told my campaign staffs four years ago the last time I ran for sheriff and six years ago when I first ran for county council. It's no secret. I just haven't advertised it in the paper because I don't think it's advertising material.

"For folks that have been here more than five, six, seven years, this is information that's been out there," said Tucker, by people who are rehashing his finances for political gain. "This isn't the first time it's come up."

At the same time, Tucker is adamant that his personal financial troubles should have nothing to do with his abilities as a councilman or sheriff.

"Since being under the court order, I have been elected to council twice and by wide margins. I am currently council vice chair and have been on the finance committee for four years. During that time, I have helped keep the county viable by being responsible with its finances. This year, we haven't raised taxes, haven't laid off anyone and haven't furloughed anyone. And we have a reserve balance of $5 million at a time when a majority of surrounding counties can't say that," said Tucker.

For Tucker, though, that doesn't take away from the fact that dealing with his finances is hard.

"I've been battling this for seven years and doing what the court ordered and what the IRS agreed to," Tucker said. "It's an ugly monster that won't go away until you deal with it, but I'm getting closer. Is it something I'm proud of? No. Is it something I'm going to run away from? No. I think it shows my true character. When things are hard, you man up, regroup and move foward."

Which, he said, is exactly what he's doing. Tucker said he is continuing to grow the driving academy in a "responsible manner" so he can continue doing something he loves: serving the public and working with young people. He also said that he is trying to manage his campaign for sheriff responsibly.

"I'm raising money and the majority of the signs I've put up are actually from my campaign four years ago," Tucker said.

According to the S.C. Ethics Commission website, Tucker filed initial and pre-election campaign disclosures for the June primary in April and May, respectively. The initial disclosure indicated he had put nearly $3,000 of his own money into the campaign, which he then spent on the filing fee to run for office. He received $300 in contributions from supporters during that short reporting cycle. By the time he filed the pre-election disclosure a month later, he had raised a little more than $2,700 from contributions and spent a little more than $3,000, mostly on new campaign signs. That left with him only $40 worth of on-hand contributions. Tucker has yet to file a quarterly report that was due in July.

"I recognize the need to file the July report but they now require you to file electronically and I don't have an Internet connection at my home," said Tucker, who said he would file the quarterly report as soon as possible.

The next quarterly report is due in October.

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