Beaufort News

The Moss ethics case: How we got here

Pictured, center, is Beaufort County School District Superintendent Jeff Moss.
Pictured, center, is Beaufort County School District Superintendent Jeff Moss. File

This story has been updated with two corrections to reflect that school board attorney Drew Davis was performing a routine notification on Aug. 31, 2015 when he instructed the S.C. School Boards Association to post a revision to the district’s conflicts of interest rule; and that Jeff Moss and his wife worked together in two previous districts, Beaufort, N.C., and Stanly counties.

In less than two weeks, Superintendent Jeff Moss is scheduled to appear before the S.C. Ethics Commission to address the controversial hiring of his wife last fall.

The commission has found probable cause to hold an Aug. 17 hearing to consider allegations that Moss knowingly used his position as superintendent to sign a consulting contract between his wife and the district and changed the district’s nepotism rule, allowing his wife to be hired to the district job. The commission will decide whether these two actions constitute Moss using his official office to obtain an economic interest for a family member — a violation of state law.

In a third count, Moss is accused of participating in a governmental decision in which an immediate family member had an economic interest when he presented his wife to the school board as a job candidate in a Sept. 1 executive session.

Moss did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story, but he has in the past repeatedly maintained that his actions were both lawful and ethical. Now, more than a year after Moss set the wheels in motion that would lead to his wife’s hiring, we look back at the timeline of events and the, at times, conflicting and vague explanations that spawned public outrage and distrust of both Moss and the school board that allowed the hiring to happen.

New position created

It all started with the restructuring of a district-level job last summer, following a longtime employee’s retirement.

Moss asked his chief instructional services officer, Dereck Rhoads, to rework the opening into a new position, and on July 22 gave formal approval to a new job that would be known as director of innovation and pay approximately $90,000 annually. The opening was posted online three days later.

Around the same time, Moss told then-school board chairman Bill Evans that Darlene Moss was interested in working for the school district, according to a letter Evans later sent to the S.C. Ethics Commission.

By this time, Darlene Moss had already done nearly six months of contract work for the district.

Evans, who did not respond to calls for comment last week, gave Jeff Moss the OK for Darlene Moss to apply for a job but did not alert the full board about their conversation.

Both men have since said they can’t remember exactly when this conversation took place, though Evans wrote in his letter to the commission it was likely July 24 or 25.

On July 28, Darlene Moss applied for the director of innovation position. She would be one of 33 candidates for the job and one of four finalists, two of whom declined to travel to Beaufort for interviews.

On Aug. 31, a five-member district panel interviewed Darlene Moss and the other remaining finalist, an assistant principal in the district.

The same day, school board attorney Drew Davis instructed the S.C. School Boards Association to post a revision to the district’s conflicts of interest rule, in which Moss had eliminated a provision regarding the hiring of superintendents’ relatives.

Davis did not sign off on the rule change as an attorney, according to district spokesman Jim Foster. He was performing “a routine, standard notification” to the association. Moss did not need or acquire district or board approval to alter the rule, although records show Davis did re-draft the rule with suggested edits for Moss before it was finalized.

On Sept. 1, the school board discussed Darlene Moss’ potential hire behind closed doors in executive session. Board member JoAnn Orischak would later say that board members at the meeting asked whether the hire would violate district rules and were told no by both Jeff Moss and Davis. Orischak also maintains that neither mentioned the rule change.

When asked by a reporter, Jeff Moss said he did not recall any board members raising the question, though he did remember being asked who would supervise Darlene Moss, and said he answered that Rhoads would be her supervisor.

Hire becomes public

Darlene Moss accepted the director of innovation job on Sept. 3. The hiring was first reported nine days later, Sept. 12, by the The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette newspapers.

On that day, Jeff Moss told the newspapers that he did not know his wife would be interested in the position when he created it.

“My wife did not have any indication of this job until after the job was posted,” he said. “I found out she might be interested when she filled out an application in our system.”

The newspapers started asking questions about the district’s nepotism policy, found within its “Staff Ethics” regulation, and through a series of emails learned that recent revisions might have been made. The papers compared the new regulation with a previous one, and on Sept. 14 noticed that a crucial line had been eliminated from the old regulation. That line read: “The board will not accept a recommendation for the appointment of a family member of the Superintendent for a position in the District Office, as a principal or assistant principal, or for any other position directly supervised or evaluated by the Superintendent.”

Jeff Moss admitted to changing the rule himself but told a reporter he could not remember when he made the rule change and maintained that it had nothing to do with his wife’s interest in the position.

“I have no idea what date. I have no idea what I was eating at the time. I have no idea where I was,” he responded.

Davis, the district’s attorney, told the papers that the best he could pinpoint was that Jeff Moss did not make the rule change any earlier than August, because the new version was dated “September 2015,” and it would take less than a month for updates to appear online. If that were true, that would have meant that Jeff Moss changed the nepotism rule, at the earliest, three days after his wife had applied with the district.

The newspapers requested any electronic confirmation of conversations about the rule change or documentation of when it was made, but the district responded that it had none. The only official documented change is when the new regulation was posted online, and that date was “September 2015.” Jeff Moss said that date was irrelevant, however, because he had printed out the old policy and made handwritten notes of changes he wanted and that a time lapse was to be expected between when he made the written notes and when the online policy was updated.

While the online version of the regulation still reads September 2015, a full list of recent revisions lists the “Staff Ethics” regulation as being changed in August.

Davis and district spokesman Jim Foster also argued the change to the nepotism rule had no bearing on Darlene Moss’ hire. In fact, they argued, they did not read the old policy as prohibiting her hire anyway. Their interpretation, they claimed, was that she could be hired under the old policy as long as she was not directly supervised or evaluated by her husband.

Jeff Moss, however, said he did not try to interpret the old rule at all but rewrote it to mirror the language he had used in other school systems as part of a comprehensive update of all district regulations.

“Those are the rules that I’m comfortable with. Those are the rules that have served me everywhere I’ve been.”

Jeff Moss previously served as superintendent in three North Carolina school systems, Lee, Beaufort and Stanly counties, and worked with his wife in Beaufort and Stanly. But a comparison of the nepotism rule revised by Jeff Moss last fall and the policies in place at those three school systems shows they don’t quite match up.

Only in Beaufort, N.C., did Jeff Moss’ policy specify that immediate family members could not “directly” supervise each other. And that policy and Lee County’s went even further, stating the superintendent should try to avoid cases where a family member “has influence over” the employment of another.

Those two policies also required the districts to disclose any familial relationships between employees and new hires in a “duly called open session” of the school board.

And in Stanly County, Jeff Moss’ policy stated the district should give “favorable consideration” to applicants who are current employees and not place people in positions where an immediate family member has a “supervisory” role over another. It doesn’t define “supervisory” role.

On Sept. 16, Foster wrote in an email to the newspaper that Jeff Moss believed he made the nepotism rule change in late July or early August but could not pinpoint it further. The email also said Davis was misquoted and that he actually said the revision did not occur any later than August, rather than any earlier than August, as the papers reported. The papers stand by the original reporting.

Complaints filed

The next day, a local businessman filed a complaint against Jeff Moss, Evans and the school board with the S.C. Ethics Commission. In his complaint, Skip Hoagland wrote, “This issue represents an egregious and obvious conflict of interest and, as such, undermines the public trust.”

Meanwhile, public criticism continued to mount. Jeff Moss dismissed the newspapers, saying, “I think you’re trying to find something that’s not there,” and dismissed other criticism as people holding grudges about past redistricting.

On Sept. 18, a Friday, the school board called for a special meeting to be held after the weekend in response to the public outcry. Jeff Moss emailed district employees, addressing the attention around his wife’s hiring and asking staff members to make up their own minds concerning his character and integrity.

“We will weather this storm together,” he wrote.

His wife resigned that Saturday. The district made no announcement.

At the board meeting on the following Monday, Jeff Moss and the board were hammered for Moss’ actions and the board’s handling of the situation by about a dozen members of the public. The board then went into a private session for three hours before announcing Darlene Moss had left the district and that the board would review and create a new nepotism policy, review future district hirings on a monthly basis, add more oversight to district rule changes and continue to back the superintendent. Jeff Moss’ job was safe.

Jeff Moss also offered an apology — but only to the board.

“I can tell you, whatever you decide to do tonight, that any credibility that you believe you’ve lost or that we’ve lost as a district, I’ll do everything within my power to rebuild that credibility, that public trust.”

In late September, another citizen, Kimberly Morgan of Beaufort, also filed an ethics complaint against Jeff Moss.

On Oct. 5, spurred by an email sent by board member Orischak outlining her concerns with what the board had been told prior to Darlene Moss’ hiring, Jeff Moss added a new detail about the conversation he and Evans had in late July about Darlene Moss’ potential employment. He said the talk was not prompted by the director of innovation job description, which he’d received July 22.

Rather, it occurred after another administrator asked him whether he thought Darlene Moss would be interested in working as a potential career development facilitator at Battery Creek or May River High School, Jeff Moss said.

He maintained then that he did not know Darlene Moss was interested in the director of innovation job until she applied July 28 and added that he did not discuss the possible career development facilitator job with his wife.

“You could say it’s a coincidence,” Jeff Moss said. “I was just talking about employment in general.”

The next day, Oct. 6, Evans resigned from the school board.

On April 18, Jeff Moss was called to appear before the ethics commission on the three alleged nepotism violations.

In a prepared statement that day, he reiterated his innocence and said, “What’s best for students is the foundation of every decision I make.”

Rebecca Lurye: 843-706-8155, @IPBG_Rebecca