Beaufort County School District Superintendent Jeff Moss was publicly reprimanded and fined after admitting guilt to two out of three ethics violations as part of a deal to avoid an upcoming ethics hearing over his involvement in the hiring of his wife, it was announced Wednesday.
As part of the deal, Moss’ guilt was described as “inadvertent and unintentional” and the commission agreed “not to pursue” a third charge related to the administrative nepotism rule he altered last summer before his wife was hired to a district-level job paying $90,000 per year.
As part of the consent order Moss signed Tuesday with the South Carolina Ethics Commission, a week before his Aug. 17 hearing, he must pay a $2,500 fine and $500 administrative fee within 30 days.
Moss said Wednesday he was hopeful the ethics commission’s decision would restore credibility and trust to the district.
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“I think what folks will see is my story did not change from the very beginning, and this outside agency did a (months-long) investigation and the facts say exactly what I’ve been saying,” Moss said.
“I think there will probably be some who are disappointed that there’s no smoking gun, that I’m not convicted of something, but I can’t live that way. I have to keep the school system in a positive direction.”
The commission’s months-long investigation included interviews with every school board member and several district employees.
The commission struck a similar deal in November with the fired president of Winthrop University, Jamie Comstock Williamson, who was charged with ethics violations in the hiring of her husband to a temporary, part-time job. She was found guilty of two of three charges, issued a public reprimand and ordered to pay a total of $4,000 within 60 days.
Williamson had urged the commission to believe her actions were “wholly unintentional,” but the order did not use that wording to describe the violations.
By accepting civil plea deals with the ethics commission, those charged with violations can negotiate for lighter punishments, such as lower fines, and avoid potential criminal charges.
The ethics commission charged Moss with three ethics violations in April — two counts of using his official office to obtain an economic interest for a family member and one count of participating in a governmental decision in which an immediate family member had an economic interest — after receiving two citizen complaints against Moss, from Beaufort resident Kimberly Morgan in October and Beaufortwatchdog.org in December.
After the order was issued, Morgan commented on Facebook, “To my knowledge, most professional educators with 33+ years of experience don’t ‘unintentionally’ breach basic ethics in regards to simple matters such as nepotism. Dr. Moss is far from stupid and in fact, had there been no malicious intent should have had the courage, integrity and character to face the Commission in a hearing next week — as well as me — and defend his character. This is validation to me that Dr. Moss is slimy, and has no sense of integrity. What an utter disgrace and example you set for our children, Dr. Moss.”
Beaufortwatchdog.org founder Skip Hoagland wrote to the Island Packet, “We were confident the facts would speak for themselves regarding Jeff Moss, and they have. ... This is a great victory for our community.”
Their complaints were consolidated, according to the order.
Prior to Tuesday, Moss had maintained he acted ethically in connection with the hire of his wife, Darlene Moss, in September 2015. “Nonetheless,” the commission found, he broke state ethics laws.
On Wednesday, Moss said he now understands that he incorrectly handled presenting his wife to the school board as the final director of innovation candidate on Sept. 1, 2015. The district’s human resources officer should have presented Darlene Moss’ name to the board to prevent a conflict of interest, according to the commission.
In the investigation, Moss attested that no school board members objected to his wife’s hire when he presented her name for vetting to the school board during a closed-door meeting on Sept. 1.
The body also noted that, according to Moss, the superintendent “encouraged the board to not hire his spouse if they had any concerns.”
He reportedly “chose his words” to allow the board to make any decision they were comfortable with, the consent order says.
Finally, Moss told the commission, his wife began work two weeks after notifying the school board to allow for any possible objections. Darlene Moss resigned one week into the job, though, after The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette began reporting on her new position.
“At no point in my entire career, my 33-year career, have I ever intentionally acted in any type of unethical manner,” Moss said. “... The direction in which I’m taking the school district has always had the students and parents in mind that we serve each and every day.”
One charge dismissed
Input from board members played a key role in the dismissal of one charge against Moss — that he may have acted unethically in deleting a portion of the district’s nepotism rule dealing with the hiring of the superintendent’s relatives.
The commission said changing the rule “creates an appearance of impropriety,” because public officials should remove themselves from decisions, votes or processes that appear to be conflicts of interest.
“In not pursuing this count,” the body wrote, “the commission is in no way condoning the actions of respondent in changing this rule.”
But, the body decided, Moss didn’t break any laws because the intent of the original rule was unclear.
The deleted paragraph 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.”
The commission “was particularly compelled by the disagreement amongst board members as to whether Mrs. Moss could have still been hired under the previous version of the rule.”
In September, Moss said that he did not try to interpret the rule when he changed it, but said in an interview Wednesday he is sure it would have allowed Darlene Moss to serve in the district office because he was not her direct supervisor.
He even consulted an English professor at the University of South Carolina after questions arose about the intent of the old rule. Moss says the professor agreed with him.
“When it has a comma, then grammatically in our English language — like it or not — the end of the sentence then defines the first part,” Moss said, referring to the clause “or for any other position.”
“That’s where the ambiguity comes into play, and that’s what I was trying to remove.”
The consulting contract
The commission found that Moss also “inadvertently and unintentionally” violated ethics laws by signing his wife’s consulting contract in 2014.
Darlene Moss was paid about $6,400 for six months of work, ending in May 2015.
However, the commission states that Moss played no other role in her being awarded the contract with the Career and Technology Education program other than signing off after three other staff members had done so. Moss says it is one of his responsibilities to sign off on all district contracts over $2,500.
That differs from what The Island Packet reported in September, that Jeff Moss complied with the district’s nepotism rule at the time that stated if a family member of a district employee wishes to do contract work for the district, “the matter shall be reported to the superintendent immediately to determine if a conflict of interest exists.”
The Island Packet reported Sept. 17, 2015, that Jeff Moss determined his wife’s contract work was not a conflict of interest. The district did not offer a correction to that reporting, but spokesman Jim Foster said Wednesday that the information he provided to the newspaper was incorrect.
Moss and Alice Walton, the district’s chief administrative and human resources officer, say now that Walton went directly to the school board during a closed session to inform them of the possible conflict of interest. Then, with their approval, she notified Moss.
“With all due respect and politeness,” Moss said Wednesday to a reporter, “you and I both know (there were numerous times) I tried to correct what was written, and I gave up after a while when nothing was corrected.”
In September 2015, The Island Packet was notified of four instances of incorrect information in articles about Moss. The papers corrected three of them and, in the fourth instance, printed the district’s objection while standing by its reporting.
Foster added Wednesday that he may not have offered a correction “because there were so many of them, it was overwhelming.”
In its investigation, the commission says it did not corroborate Moss’ statements that the contract complied with district regulations. The consent order also does not detail how or when Moss learned of his wife’s contract.
Read the consent order:
Breaking down the Moss deal
Beaufort County Schools Superintendent Jeff Moss settled charges against him and avoided a hearing in front of the South Carolina Ethics Commission by agreeing to a consent order built around three specific charges under the broader umbrella of using his position for financial gain for his family.
The specific charges
1. SIGNING CONTRACT — Moss pleads guilty to signing his wife’s contract for consulting work with the district.
What the commission said: No evidence existed to prove Moss played a role in the hiring of his wife as consultant. Regardless, by signing the contract Moss violated the Ethics Act.
2. PRESENTING WIFE FOR HIRE — Moss pleads guilty to presenting his wife’s candidacy for hire before the school board.
What the commission said: No conclusion was drawn on Moss’ claim that he was acting in good faith and that the presentation of his wife was handled as any similar hiring would. The fact that he presented her constituted a violation of the Ethics Act.
3. CHANGING NEPOTISM RULE — Commission agrees not to pursue a charge that he altered the administrative rule regarding language about the hiring of a superintendent's family member.
What the commission said: “In not pursuing this count, the commission is in no way condoning the actions of Respondent (Moss) in changing this rule. The commission believes, at minimum, that Respondent's action to change the rule creates an appearance of impropriety.”
Moss receives a public reprimand and is fined $2,500 plus an additional $500 administrative fee.