Jasper school district given no details in federal probe

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comMarch 10, 2014 

Jasper County School Board members read a statement at their Monday board meeting about an investigation of the school district by the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the S.C. Law Enforcement Division.

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An investigation by the FBI, the Criminal Investigation Division of the IRS, and the S.C. Law Enforcement Division into alleged criminal activity in the Jasper County School District is ongoing, according to a school board leader.

However, the district has not been given details as to the cause or subject of the investigation, school board chairwoman Berty Riley said in a statement Monday at the district's meeting.

Several district-level employees have been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in Columbia in April related to the investigation, according to school board attorney Ken Childs with Columbia-based Childs & Halligan. Childs would not name those employees.

After an executive session during the meeting, the board voted to provide independent legal advice -- not through Childs & Halligan -- to those who have been subpoenaed. If any of those employees are indicted, the district is not obligated to provide them counsel, Childs said.

The school district first learned of the investigation when agents from the divisions arrived unannounced at 8 a.m. Wednesday at the district office in Ridgeland. Several agents also went to superintendent Vashti Washington's house that morning.

They arrived at her home with no search warrants, subpoenas or other legal documents, Riley said in the statement. The agents left after Washington's husband told the officers that she was unavailable.

"I, personally, have no knowledge whatsoever of any illegal or criminal activity by any district employees, board members, and certainly not by the district superintendent," Riley said Monday.

In a letter to Jasper County schools, the U.S. Attorney's Office of South Carolina asked that the district maintain and not destroy certain information: all district financial documents; employment files for the superintendent and other administrators; board meeting minutes; and correspondence between employees.

In a response to the state Attorney's Office, Childs & Halligan said they would provide requested documents to investigators. They also asked investigators to contact the law firm to arrange meetings with district employees.

Childs & Halligan also sent a letter to the district encouraging all employees to cooperate with law enforcement. The letter states that "employees may meet and talk with law enforcement representatives during work hours. No documents are to be produced or released without a subpoena and/or the permission of your immediate supervisor."

PROBLEMS IN AUDIT

During the meeting, Jasper County schools' chief financial officer told board members the federal investigation was not related to the district's most recent external audit, completed two weeks ago.

Investigators confirmed that in a Monday morning meeting, Gary West said. He declined to say whether the agencies provided information about what was being investigated.

The audit in question found two problems with grant claims to the state Department of Education, West said.

One grant for about $53,000 was claimed twice, but that money is being returned to the state, according to West. The other issue involved funds from a grant that were put in the wrong place but are being moved to the correct location within the budget, he said.

"During the meeting, I was told there is no relationship between the audit and the ongoing investigation," West said. "Those are simply some management issues that we need to fix and (we) are putting a plan in place to do so."

Board member Debora Butler asked the auditors whether the audit would have found and revealed a misappropriation of public funds. The auditors, from McGregor & Company LLP, said that would be a different type of audit. Theirs focused primarily on district procedures for handling funds, they said.

After the meeting, board member Tedd Moyd said the district and board are still in the dark and don't know what the agencies could be looking into. He wishes they would be more forthcoming about the situation.

Washington declined to comment.

In the conclusion of her statement, Riley said, "I want to ensure the Jasper County community, our district employees, parents, students and others, that the district will continue to cooperate with proper law enforcement inquiries."

"We also will keep the public properly informed of the investigation, and we will take professional and appropriate action involving any employees whose conduct merits or justifies disciplinary action," Riley said.

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

Related content: Jasper County School District under investigation by IRS, FBI, March 5, 2014

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