Secretive emails reveal SC ag school chief eyed ousting whistleblower |

Editor’s Note: The Index-Journal is one in every of 16 newspapers partnering with The Post and Courier for Uncovered, an investigative venture meant to ferret out misconduct and questionable habits by public officers.

Top John de la Howe officers, together with the school’s president, used non-public e-mail accounts as they deliberate to retaliate towards a whistleblower and hid different key selections throughout the state agriculture school’s infancy, a brand new Uncovered investigation discovered.

The revelation got here in 1000’s of pages of emails the Index-Journal obtained from Clemson University, the place John de la Howe’s president, Tim Keown, used to work. These emails additionally counsel he was promised a place on the fledgling school months earlier than the job was posted.

He wasn’t alone in utilizing a non-agency e-mail account. As interim president, Sharon Wall relied closely on a Yahoo! e-mail account, with a few of these messages captured in different requests once they included somebody’s company e-mail deal with or in emails despatched to Keown.

Together, these emails increase the curtain on methods state officers sidestep public scrutiny.

“The South Carolina Supreme Court has mentioned clearly that one of many functions of the FOIA is to forestall public enterprise from being carried out exterior of public view,” mentioned Jay Bender, a longtime press lawyer. “The use of personal textual content or e-mail to conduct public enterprise seems to be an try and evade the disclosure necessities of the regulation.

“Fortunately the General Assembly outlined public data within the regulation to incorporate digital communications associated to public enterprise even when a personal account was used.”

Private accounts, public emails

The precept that emails despatched as a part of authorities enterprise are inherently public has lengthy been enshrined in regulation.

In steerage from the state Department of Archives and History, the company that units guidelines for state data retention, the authors cite a 1993 federal ruling that declared emails created by the Reagan administration are public data and topic to the identical retention insurance policies as different correspondences.

And the state’s Freedom of Information Act, which asserts “that it’s vital in a democratic society that public enterprise be carried out in an open and public method,” makes use of a broad definition for public data that features any supplies “ready, owned, used, within the possession of, or retained by a public physique,” no matter kind.

All of that is meant to maintain the enterprise of presidency within the public realm so individuals can scrutinize how their tax {dollars} are spent.

Still, quite a lot of high officers have been caught utilizing alternate accounts, doubtlessly shielding correspondences from public disclosure.

Perhaps the perfect recognized is Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal e-mail server whereas serving as secretary of state, which garnered a lot consideration throughout the 2016 presidential election that it spawned the sardonic “however what about her emails?” retort.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, too, had an e-mail flap. In 2017, The Post and Courier discovered the state’s high lawyer used a personal account to coordinate with Richard Quinn, his embattled political adviser, as he sought to finish particular prosecutor David Pascoe’s involvement within the probe of Quinn and his son, former state Rep. Rick Quinn.

Now high officers at John de la Howe, together with Keown and Wall, have joined the rising listing of South Carolina officers caught utilizing alternate e-mail accounts for public enterprise.

Taylor Smith, lawyer for the South Carolina Press Association, mentioned he fears this follow is rising “more and more prevalent.”

“Whether it is via the rising chance that any written communication with friends happen by way of textual content or unhealthy authorized recommendation that that is some strategy to keep away from manufacturing via the state’s open data, the consequence will likely be much less governmental transparency,” Smith mentioned.

Part of the issue is that IT workers and others who in the end scour servers for emails attentive to any explicit request may not know or have entry to emails from non-agency accounts. Instead, whoever has the non-public account would in the end have to offer them and would face little recourse ought to they select to cover embarrassing messages.

“SCFOIA has utilized historically to the data a public physique has of their possession, bodily or digitally, however the regulation’s definition of public file additionally contains these issues ‘ready’ or ‘used’ by public officers. If textual content is getting used to conduct public enterprise, it can essentially be tougher for even the general public physique clerk to grasp what they’ve in response to a request, a lot much less what the requester is aware of would possibly even exist in response to their request,” Smith mentioned.

At the identical time, there isn’t any regulation towards utilizing private e-mail addresses for company enterprise, says Patrick McCawley, supervisor of file providers on the state Department of Archives and History. He added, “We do suggest as a part of a very good data administration coaching that company workers use solely the company supported e-mail system to ship and obtain emails referring to company enterprise.”

“However, the usage of a secondary e-mail deal with doesn’t change the content material and authorized definition of a public file as outlined within the SC Code of Law, Section 30-4-20(c): ‘Public data contains all books, papers, maps, pictures, playing cards, tapes, recordings, or different documentary supplies no matter bodily kind or traits ready, owned, used, within the possession of, or retained by a public physique,'” McCawley mentioned. “If the e-mail is distributed or obtained by member of a public company and the contents of the e-mail message reference public enterprise, the message could be thought of a public file by our company no matter its technique of supply.”

Keown and Wall didn’t reply to questions on how John de la Howe was sustaining data from these alternate e-mail addresses.

Tim Keown, president of the Governor's School of Agriculture at John de la Howe (copy) (copy)

Tim Keown is president of the S.C. the Governor’s School of Agriculture at John de la Howe.

Reporting to the state

In September 2020, Keown was copied on an e-mail from JDLH lawyer Chris Johnson to Sylvester Coleman, the school’s director of enterprise and finance, about trustees voting to provide Wall authority to barter a contract extension with Student-Centered Education Consulting Group whereas she served as interim president, then becoming a member of the agency instantly after leaving the school.

The Post and Courier first reported on this association in April 2021, which could violate state ethics regulation since Wall did not take a yearlong cooling-off interval earlier than beginning on the agency.

A number of days later, Keown replied to Coleman from his official e-mail: “Since the e-mail got here, I’ve talked to our board about it. They defined to me that our former president was not answerable for procuring the contract in query and that it, together with the work she was to carry out, had been permitted particularly by the board. What occurred as a substitute was that you just took solely partial data to our lawyer and a number of exterior businesses, inflicting our lawyer to spend useless time researching a difficulty about which he didn’t have all of the details, and giving exterior businesses the impression that we’re making some type of finish run across the ethics legal guidelines.”

Coleman responded, telling Keown that is not what it says within the minutes.

“The board minutes should be up to date to mirror this as a result of within the final minutes posted referencing contracting with Student Center it clearly states that they gave the president the authority to barter the contract,” he mentioned.

Coleman additionally informed Keown he solely checked with the lawyer as a result of the South Carolina Comptroller General’s workplace informed him “they may not make the willpower (for fee) and said that I wanted exterior authorized willpower.”

The following day, Gerald Moore with Student-Centered Education Consulting Group despatched an e-mail with the topic line “Sylvester’s response” to Keown’s Clemson account and Wall.

“He thinks he has obtained you and he’s baiting you to alter the board minutes,” he wrote. “This is the handiwork of Peggy who sits round and searches rules looking for some strategy to mess issues up. We have had issues like this earlier than. They apparently shouldn’t have sufficient to do.”

Keown replied: “I would like assist in a RIF of that division and bringing within the state accounting division. What’s our subsequent step on this? What ought to I be doing to get this shifting prior to later? What are you able to all do to assist? I really feel betrayed in all the things we’re doing right here from that group.”

John de la Howe15.JPG (copy) (copy)

Timothy Keown (left) and Sharon Wall sit within the President’s House on the John de la Howe campus on April 14, 2021, close to McCormick. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Wall then gave Keown the title of somebody with the state Department of Administration, saying the particular person “is nice and may information you.”

A discount-in-force, or RIF, is the state’s most popular language for a layoff. Department of Administration offers 4 doable causes for a RIF: reorganization, work scarcity, lack of funding and outsourcing or privatization.

Silencing whistleblowers isn’t on the listing.

State regulation really forbids businesses from firing workers who report potential wrongdoing. Per Section 8-27-20(A): “No public physique could dismiss, droop from employment, demote, or lower the compensation of an worker of a public physique as a result of the worker recordsdata a report with an applicable authority of wrongdoing.”

It’s not clear how far this plan obtained. Keown did obtain an e-mail from the state with a RIF plan, however that attachment was not launched to the Index-Journal and the message lacked any context concerning the proposed layoff. What is evident is that Coleman nonetheless works for JDLH some 18 months later, and whereas procurement specialist Peggy Medlock retired, her place was ultimately stuffed.

This wasn’t the one time Coleman got here up in conversations between Keown and Moore. In two completely different exchanges, each earlier than the report back to the state, Moore steered bypassing the company’s finance chief. He proposed getting a second one that may log out on procurements and utilizing funds straight from the inspiration that “the state would not management and Sylvester cannot complicate.” Keown and Moore additionally retooled the organizational chart of the school, shifting Principal Greg Thompson to be second-in-command whereas Coleman was relegated to No. 3.

Responding to an emailed request for remark, Coleman wrote: “It is a tragic day if state workers and/or consultants have been devising a strategy to go round me and the Business Department to bypass allocating funds (from) the inspiration. In addition, suggesting a RIF to the Business Department could be troublesome to stick to the ‘separation of duties’ that the state of South Carolina requires for monetary transactions.”

He deferred to his lawyer for any further remark.

In a separate e-mail to Keown, Moore proposed consulting on quite a lot of small tasks to maintain prices down and maybe get round buying thresholds.

“I can’t enable these individuals to win,” he wrote. “I’ll work at no cost if essential to make this occur and make this school profitable. All you need to do is ask. THEY WILL NOT WIN and destroy this effort. We have come too far and, absolutely they understand, failure will consequence of their unemployment. That is the one possibility and there’s no in between. I might certain get in your workforce and make it occur and never reduce my nostril off to spite my face. I’ve mentioned this to them a number of instances, however they don’t get the message.”

Keown and Moore didn’t reply to questions on these exchanges.

Whistleblowers get little safety

Longtime anti-corruption activist John Crangle panned South Carolina’s whistleblower regulation for public workers.

“It’s principally nugatory,” he mentioned.

He mentioned businesses that fireside workers for reporting violations pay too little within the case of profitable circumstances. Damages cannot exceed $15,000. Beyond that, all a litigant can obtain is misplaced pay and doubtlessly reinstatement.

“The restoration the whistleblower will get underneath the regulation is nearly nothing,” Crangle mentioned.

And lawyer price awards are capped at $10,000 for a trial and $5,000 for appeals, which Crangle says is just too little for attorneys to tackle whistleblower circumstances with out different actionable claims.

Should an employer wish to get across the letter of the regulation, they want solely wait one 12 months and at some point earlier than expelling whoever blew the whistle with out doable repercussions.

“What now we have is a pretend whistleblower regulation in South Carolina,” Crangle mentioned.

To perceive the way it obtained that means, Crangle says we have to flip the clock again greater than 30 years to Oct. 2, 1989.

That day, Helen McGill was fired from her job as hazardous waste supervisor on the University of South Carolina. It was simply at some point earlier than she would have obtained full-time employment standing.

The Columbia-based establishment claimed “gross negligence and insubordination,” however McGill thought it needed to do with the stories she filed about violations of state Department of Health and Environmental Control rules. She sued underneath the comparatively new whistleblower regulation, enacted in 1988, and a jury agreed together with her, awarding McGill $350,000, plus $86,000 in authorized prices and lawyer’s charges.

After the state Supreme Court upheld the decision in 1992, her lawyer, Lewis Cromer, informed media: “It tells them that not can they kill the messengers just because they do not just like the message.”

Crangle mentioned that verdict led company heads to foyer lawmakers to defang the regulation — which is simply what the Legislature did in 1993. That regulation has remained unchanged since, not even adjusting up potential awards for inflation.

He mentioned the regulation not protects whistleblowers.

‘A rattlesnake’

When journalists started asking questions final 12 months, paranoia reigned amongst Keown and his consultants — particularly Moore, who questioned whether or not there was a “rat” at de la Howe or if the State Ethics Commission had tipped off reporters about Wall becoming a member of the consulting agency as a substitute of taking a one-year cooling-off interval.

In one e-mail, he wonders whether or not The Post and Courier was engaged on behalf of some newly fashioned ag school within the Charleston space — he would not title the school — “to destroy or discredit De la Howe to get rid of the competitors.” In one other missive, Moore concocted a fable a couple of cabal of newspapers looking for to oust Republican officeholders who’d set their sights on John de la Howe as a result of it turned a governor’s school underneath Gov. Henry McMaster.

Distrustful of journalists, Moore informed Keown and Wall that reporters “aren’t your folks.”

“You deal with the media like a rattlesnake,” he mentioned.

Who you already know?

In April 2021, The Post and Courier reported on allegations of cronyism at John de la Howe, with many concerned with the budding agriculture school having shut hyperlinks to one another, usually with a connection to Edgefield.

For occasion, when JDLH chairperson Hugh Bland taught agriculture at Strom Thurmond High School in Edgefield, his superintendent was Wall and his principal was Greg Thompson. Bland’s board employed Wall as interim president and Thompson as principal. Now Bland’s son, Mitchell, is a resident adviser on the school. Other notable additions to the workers from Edgefield embrace Ken Durham and Scott Mims in amenities, who function Edgefield mayor and metropolis council member, respectively.

It appears as if Keown, too, landed his job at de la Howe due to who he knew.

That John de la Howe tried to actively recruit Keown is not any secret. Wall informed the Index-Journal in 2019 that she’d recognized Keown for years and had tried to persuade him to work for the school since 2018.

But these emails present Keown appeared promised a job months earlier than it was created and began his work for John de la Howe whereas nonetheless a Clemson worker.

On March 4, Keown emailed Wall: “I do know I’m not official but. But I’m (in) a gathering now concerning the upcoming Education Business Summit assembly in June. I wish to current at this for del a Howe (sic). But, they want a reputation by March fifteenth. Could I put your title down after which later we will swap to mine? Or we may co-present? I simply can’t give them my title clearly proper now. Your ideas? It may very well be even us two and Frank?”

There have been a number of different JDLH-related exchanges in early spring 2019. Then on April 29, 2019, he emailed Wall and two high state ag individuals to confirm a gathering the next day.

“Let’s make this a enterprise informal assembly, no want for coat and tie since we will likely be trying across the farm,” he wrote.

By May 1, Moore wrote to a small group that included Keown: “I went again to the unique examine’s last report and pulled this out. Our authentic suggestion was that the schooling middle may very well be put into operation a 12 months forward of the school. This may very well be working (and turning a revenue) whereas the school was being reconstructed. This was our authentic suggestion.”

Keown additionally began getting common updates from the advisor.

It wasn’t till May 23 that the school posted the director of the schooling middle place and Keown utilized Day 1, submitting a canopy letter tailor-made to the put up, a three-page resume, a listing of six references and solutions to a prolonged questionnaire. The job closed May 29, he despatched an e-mail to his community of ag lecturers on June 6 asserting he was becoming a member of John de la Howe and leaving Clemson, and his provide letter from John de la Howe was dated June 13. He began July 2.

If Keown then utilized for the job as president, the appliance is not in his personnel file. Regardless, he was named one in every of three finalists and trustees voted him in as president Dec. 6, 2019 — about 5 months later.

It was a meeting-heavy day for the board. At 9:30 a.m., the board had a particular referred to as assembly to interview Keown and two different finalists, with an hour slated for every. Then, at 1 p.m., the board had its common assembly.

The minutes for the 2 conferences are mixed right into a single doc. An agenda for the particular assembly was included to characterize what occurred on the first assembly, whereas the doc particulars the common assembly.

Bland referred to as the common assembly to order at 1 p.m. and it ended at 2:54 p.m. After listening to quite a lot of updates, the board went behind closed doorways to debate some matter not preserved within the minutes. The minutes present government session began at 11:32 a.m. — almost 90 minutes earlier than the common assembly began — and exited government session 46 minutes later. After the board returned to common session, it voted to rent Keown as president.

The minutes additionally listing Keown’s report simply forward of government session regardless that he was listed earlier on the agenda and had obtained permission to share his replace with the board early as a result of he had a battle with the assembly.

State regulation offers that boards cannot meet until they provide the general public no less than 24 hours’ discover and so they should abide by the agenda given to the general public, with some exceptions for excessive circumstances.

Also, there was no point out on both agenda that trustees would possibly vote for president. While most boards point out on agendas whether or not motion may be taken after closed-door conferences, JDLH’s agendas solely listing “report on government session.” Since motion can’t be taken behind closed doorways, it’s unclear what the board would report or if it might cowl a vote.

FOIA lays out what a board should do to take motion if it isn’t on the agenda: “After the assembly begins, an merchandise upon which motion could be taken solely could also be added to the agenda by a two-thirds vote of the members current and voting; nevertheless, if the merchandise is one upon which last motion could be taken on the assembly or if the merchandise is one wherein there has not been and won’t be a chance for public remark with prior public discover given in accordance with this part, it solely could also be added to the agenda by a two-thirds vote of the members current and voting and upon a discovering by the physique that an emergency or an exigent circumstance exists if the merchandise isn’t added to the agenda.”

The minutes don’t point out any such votes occurred.

Bland and Keown didn’t reply to requests for remark or clarification concerning the minutes.

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