Beaufort County Superintendent Jeff Moss denied having ever been sanctioned by a state regulatory agency on his recent application to be state superintendent of Alabama, despite pleading guilty to two violations of ethics laws after a S.C. Ethics Commission investigation in 2016.
When asked why he answered "no" to the question — "Have you ever had any license or certificate of any kind (teaching certificate or other professional license) revoked, suspended, or reprimanded, or have you in any way been sanctioned by or is any charge or complaint now pending against you before any licensing, certification or other regulatory agency or body, public or private?" — Moss said in a Wednesday interview that he didn't know whether the S.C. Ethics Commission was a regulatory agency.
(Click here to view Moss' application and letters of recommendation for state superintendent of Alabama.)
After being read verbiage of the question over the phone, Moss said he does not consider the ethics commission to be a regulatory agency. He went on to say he considers agencies such as the S.C. Department of Education as regulatory because the department manages educators' certificates and noted that his license is valid through 2023.
S.C. Ethics Commission Director Meghan Walker said Wednesday that the agency is a regulatory agency.
"It’s a public arm of government that has responsibilities for regulating the state Ethics Act," she said, speaking generally about the function of her office and not about any particular case.
According to the S.C. Ethics Commission's website, the agency has the authority to recommend administration or disciplinary action, issue warnings or reprimands, order restitution or levy a civil penalty.
In Moss' case, the agency issued Moss a public reprimand and ordered him to pay $3,000 in fees and fines, but allowed him to describe his actions involved in the hiring of his wife as “unintentional and inadvertent." As part of the deal he entered into to avoid an ethics hearing, Moss admitted to unknowingly breaking state ethics laws in signing his wife’s consulting contract and presenting her as a job candidate to the school board.
A mention of the ethics complaint does appear in a letter of recommendation, in which board member Mary Cordray defends Moss' actions.
Moss' wife was presented to the board for hire during a closed-door session of a September 2015 meeting. State open-records law prohibits boards from voting in closed session. Meeting minutes do not show a board vote on the hire.
Cordray's letter of recommendation continued: "Rumors spread that a policy had been changed that had previously prohibited Mrs. Moss from being eligible for the position. Dr. Moss had been reviewing all Administrative Rules and had made changes to have it comply with South Carolina law and previous districts he had served in. The majority of the Beaufort County School Board felt that the change was irrelevant and that Mrs. Moss was eligible for the position both before the change and after."
Some board members, however, later said they weren't told about Moss' changing of the district's conflict-of-interest rule.
“It’s unfortunate that I didn’t have that information, but it doesn’t necessarily change what would have processed after that,” board member Geri Kinton said in April 2016.
Board member JoAnn Orischak contends that board members at the closed-door meeting in question asked whether the hire would violate district rules and were told "no" by both Moss and school district attorney Drew Davis. Orischak also maintains that neither mentioned the rule change.
The S.C. Ethics Commission dismissed the charge related to changing the rule because of disagreement among board members about whether his wife could have been hired under the old rule, but noted in a consent order that the change “create(d) an appearance of impropriety,” because public officials should remove themselves from decisions, votes or processes that appear to be conflicts of interest.