Beaufort News

Winthrop nepotism debacle parallels Moss controversy

Jamie Comstock Williamson
Jamie Comstock Williamson

A top education leader initiates changes that lead to a new position and ultimately the hiring of a spouse. Public outcry ensues. The leader tries to defend the move by saying it’s OK because the spouse reports to someone else. The spouse is forced out of the job, conflicting stories emerge, the involvement of a board chairman is called into question, and the S.C. Ethics Commission finds probable cause to call a hearing on potential violations of using an office for financial gain.

The narrative will sound familiar to those who have followed the nepotism controversy that has dogged Beaufort County School District Superintendent Jeff Moss since his wife was hired to a director-level position last September. But the narrative doesn’t fit just Moss. A strikingly similar nepotism controversy happened at Winthrop University in Rock Hill in 2014.

And it did not end well for Winthrop President Jamie Comstock Williamson.

While there are distinct differences in what happened here and at Winthrop — most notably the response by each organization’s governing board — the parallels in the two cases could be instructive when looking ahead to Moss’ ethics hearing, scheduled for Aug. 17, and how the parties involved try to repair their image.

Williamson, fired president of Winthrop University in Rock Hill, admitted in November to violating state nepotism laws two years earlier by hiring her husband to a part-time, $30,000-salary job. Larry Williamson had served nine months as senior counsel for strategic initiatives, a post created specifically for him and one that reported directly to his wife’s executive assistant.

As with the Beaufort County superintendent’s case, the S.C. Ethics Commission found probable cause to call a hearing for Jamie Williamson on alleged ethics violations of using her office to obtain an economic interest for a family member and of participating in a governmental decision in which an immediate family member had an economic interest.

And, like Moss, Jamie Williamson denied the accusations in the immediate wake of public outcry.

But while Moss still maintains he acted ethically in approving his wife’s hiring — with the backing of most school board members — and awaits an ethics hearing next week, Jamie Williamson never defended her actions before a panel of commissioners. On Nov. 9, nine days before her scheduled hearing, she admitted to and opted to pay reduced fines over the nepotism violations by signing a consent order with the commission.

“No additional public good could come from a formal hearing,” Jamie Williamson told The Rock Hill Herald on Nov. 17, “so I opted for the consent order as the most honorable and expeditious way to bring this matter to a close.”

Whether Jamie Williamson’s experience will affect how Moss decides to proceed is unclear. The superintendent did not return calls for this story. But Moss’ continued defiance and the fact that the majority of the school board still supports him suggest he will not seek to strike a deal with the commission. Jamie Williamson had already been fired, so she likely saw little benefit in going through a hearing when, practically speaking, she had already lost.

Suspension, firing

Indeed, Winthrop University swiftly suspended and then fired Jamie Williamson after her husband’s job gained media attention in the spring of 2014, but the situation began months earlier, according to the eight-page consent order.

During the interview process for the Rock Hill university’s top job, Jamie Williamson spoke about her husband’s background in government relations and discussed with him and two university officials “how to take advantage of Mr. Williamson’s expertise for the benefit of Winthrop,” the order states.

The officials were executive assistant to the president and trustee secretary Kimberly Faust and then-trustee chairwoman Kathy Bigham.

In late February 2013, a few weeks after her final on-campus interview, Jamie Williamson sent Faust and Bigham an email “suggesting that Mr. Williamson could serve as a special adviser for external relations.”

Those discussions continued after Jamie Williamson took office that May. And while Larry Williamson began working for the university as a volunteer on external strategic initiatives, Faust and Bigham suggested several times that the university should give him a formal title and job.

At one point in July 2013, Jamie Williamson claimed, chairwoman Bigham commented that her husband’s “status as a mere spouse of the president was insufficient to allow for his active representation of Winthrop’s interests,” the order states.

Ultimately, it was Jamie Williamson who suggested her executive assistant, Faust, create the temporary, part-time job to formalize his role as a university representative.

HR raises questions

The job hit its first snag when Faust submitted the description to Winthrop’s human resources manager, Lisa Cowart. She remarked in an email that there might be fewer questions if the job was created in another department and forwarded the school’s nepotism policy, which incompletely quoted the state’s ethics act.

Faust, however, assured the Williamsons that they were “fine” as long as the temporary job reported to her rather than the president. She added that placing the job in another division, as Cowart suggested, would “take away some of the gravitas of the position” and “will look like we tried to hide the position.”

Larry Williamson began working Sept. 1, 2013.

And though Jamie Williamson and other university staff repeatedly called his job a temporary position — the university eventually hired Jeff Perez to handle public affairs and external relations duties — The Herald obtained emails that suggested otherwise.

In one, sent Oct. 1, 2013, the president wrote that she would “re-evaluate” her husband’s role once Perez was hired but that he would likely remain a part-time employee; and Faust told the president the university could renew Larry Williamson’s employment each year by resubmitting his temporary hire paperwork, the Rock Hill paper reported.

Over the next few months, Jamie Williamson informed members of the S.C. General Assembly, the executive committee of Winthrop’s Board of Trustees and the ethics commission itself about her husband’s new job.

No other concerns were raised until February 2014, when a trustee noted that the position “just didn’t look good.” Jamie Williamson assured that member, who is not named in the consent order, that her husband’s job would end with the academic year.

Throughout that spring, though, public scrutiny grew surrounding Larry Williamson’s job and the ensuing controversy.

Accusations traded

On June 12, 2014, Larry Williamson returned the $27,000 he’d earned in his nine months of service, at the advice of then-general counsel for the commission Cathy Hazelwood — who was responsible in that role for prosecuting ethics cases.

“If you did that, this all goes away,” Hazelwood told Larry Williamson, according to the commission order.

The next day, the trustees suspended Jamie Williamson as president. Two weeks later, they fired her from her nearly $300,000-a-year position.

The Herald reported that trustees not only accused Jamie Williamson of violating the university’s nepotism policy but of trying to have public records destroyed and acting in “explosive, berating, demeaning, hostile, condescending, rude and other unprofessional behavior” to campus employees.

And in mid-July, commission director Herb Hayden filed a complaint against her on three counts of ethics violations.

Jamie Williamson offered numerous defenses to her participation in her husband’s hiring. She argued that Winthrop failed to follow state law by giving her a brochure on the ethics act and that she’d relied on her secretary, human resources manager and supervisor — trustee chairwoman Bigham — to guide her.

Rather than steer her away from the hiring, they encouraged it, Jamie Williamson said.

In one email in early July, Faust wrote to Jamie Williamson, “We have an opportunity to hire a senior counsel for strategic initiatives, highly qualified and willing to work for a pittance. We need to have him sign a contract before he comes to his senses,” according to records secured by The Herald.

While admitting she broke state ethics law, Jamie Williamson asked the commission for leniency and urged them to believe that her actions were “wholly unintentional.”

In the consent order, Jamie William was issued a public reprimand and ordered to pay a total of $4,000 within 60 days.

The Williamsons now work together at their family mediation practice, Amity Mediation Workshop LLC, in Florida. Attempts to reach them through their company and their former attorney, Bev Carroll of Rock Hill, were unsuccessful.

The board’s decision to fire Jamie Williamson did not provide as clean of a break as it would have liked, however. Trustee chairman Karl Folkens said no board members could comment because a legal battle between Jamie Williamson and Winthrop is still active.

Folkens, an attorney who is also the trustees’ legal representation, said July 27, “We’re not making any further public, on-the-record comments at this time except to state that we still stand by the statements previously made to and as reported in The Herald.”

Faust referred questions to Folkens on Tuesday, and Cowart did not respond to an interview request.

Rebecca Lurye: 843-706-8155, @IPBG_Rebecca

Comparing the Winthrop and Moss cases

A look at how cases involving Jamie Williamson, ex-president of Winthrop University, and Jeff Moss, superintendent of the Beaufort County School District, compare:

▪  Situation: Jamie Williamson hired her husband, Larry Williamson, to a newly created, part-time, temporary position in September 2013. Jeff Moss hired his wife, Darlene Moss, to a newly restructured, full-time position in September 2015.

▪  Position: Larry Williamson was named strategic counsel for strategic initiatives and earned a $30,000 salary. Darlene Moss was named director of innovation and was set to earn a nearly $90,000 salary.

▪  Origin of the job: Jamie Williamson suggested the university create a position to formalize her husband’s volunteer work as a Winthrop representative. Jeff Moss asked a staff member to restructure the job of academic improvement officer, which was vacant, into a new innovation role and says he did not know his wife would apply.

▪ Search: Larry Williamson was the only person to apply for the strategic counsel job, which was not advertised. Darlene Moss was one of 33 applicants for the director of innovation job, which was advertised online.

▪  Chain of command: Larry Williamson and Darlene Moss both reported to a staff member who directly reported to their spouses: Williamson to the president’s executive assistant and Moss to the superintendent’s chief instructional officer.

▪  Board response: The Winthrop Board of Trustees fired Jamie Williamson. The majority of the Beaufort school board stood behind Moss.

▪  Employee response: Both Larry Williamson and Darlene Moss left their jobs following public scrutiny. Larry Williamson returned the full $27,000 he earned over nine months. Darlene Moss resigned from her job after one week, and kept the $1,739.35 she earned.

▪  Complaint: Ethics commission director Herb Hayden filed a complaint against Jamie Williamson after her firing. Two citizens filed complaints against Jeff Moss just days after Darlene Moss began work Sept. 14.

▪  Ethics violations: Jamie Williamson and Jeff Moss were both accused of using their official office to obtain an economic interest for a family member and of participating in a governmental decision in which an immediate family member had an economic interest. Williamson was additionally charged with causing the employment of a family member to a position that she manages.

▪  Disposition: Jamie Williamson signed a consent order admitting to nepotism violations the day before her scheduled hearing. Jeff Moss has denied any wrongdoing ahead of his ethics hearing, scheduled for Aug. 17.