A third Beaufort County School District employee has been served a federal subpoena in response to an ongoing FBI investigation related to the construction of two Bluffton schools, according to three Beaufort County Board of Education members.
Board members learned of the federal subpoena, which they said was served to district project manager Anthony Pernice, at the tail end of a closed-door session of Tuesday’s night school board meeting, according to board members John Dowling, David Striebinger and Christina Gwozdz.
Board members weren’t told when federal authorities served the subpoena to Pernice nor were they told if the subpoena requested records or asked Pernice to testify to a federal grand jury.
Dowling requested to view the subpoena and was told by school district attorney Drew Davis in an email, “I do not possess it.”
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School district officials would not confirm a third subpoena was served and, instead, issued an emailed statement late Thursday that also does not deny a third subpoena’s existence.
“Senior district administration has seen only two subpoenas issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and has responded fully to both,” district spokesman Jim Foster wrote in an email. “The district has not provided any records or documents in response to a third subpoena.”
The statement continued: “We won’t reveal the details of discussions that occur during executive session, but we can say that a third subpoena was not provided to Board members or shown to Board members using a projector. There was no discussion or back-and-forth among Board members.”
Pernice works in the district’s facilities department, which is headed by facilities, planning and construction officer Robert Oetting.
Oetting and chief financial officer Tonya Crosby were served federal subpoenas sometime in early January for documents related to the building of May River High School and River Ridge Academy, the district’s procurement process and the architect used in both projects — the only two schools built during superintendent Jeff Moss’ tenure so far.
The architect, North Carolina-based Hite Associates, had previously worked with Moss on at least one project when he was superintendent in two North Carolina school districts. The Bluffton projects marked the firm’s first time working for a South Carolina school district, according to previous reporting by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
On Jan. 16, board members learned of the subpoenas in a closed-door meeting that five of the 11 board members described as one in which threats were lodged against them if they disclosed the subpoenas to the public. Davis and other board members deny this.
Dowling forced the issue by publicly disclosing the federal subpoenas at a Feb. 3 work session, prompting the board officers to issue a written statement.
“The District has been assured that it is not the target of the investigation, and is only being asked to produce information at this time,” the statement read.
The district turned over documents to the FBI on Feb. 5, according to an email from Moss to board members.
Last week, the board held a special-called meeting that resulted in the board officers denying multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for copies of the subpoenas, a decision they said was made to protect the integrity of the investigation.
Open-records experts, however, say the public has a right to see the subpoenas, especially in light of the $76 million bond referendum in April that would, in part, fund the expansion of the two schools referenced in the subpoenas.
The only topic listed on the meeting agenda to go into executive session Tuesday was “discussion of negotiations incident to proposed contractual arrangements for audit of BCSD procurement card purchases,” which does not appear to be remotely related to the FBI investigation — a violation of FOIA.
“We were all heading for the door,” Striebinger said. “It was one of those, ‘Oh, by the way,’ things.”
Asked for a response to the appropriateness of the closed-door meeting that touched on a topic not voted on in public session, Foster instead issued the emailed statement, which did not include an answer to the question.