Uncovered: Secretive emails reveal JDLH chief eyed ousting whistleblower | State

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

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

Timothy Keown_0.jpg


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 college 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 after they included somebody’s company e mail tackle 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 outdoors 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 to evade the disclosure necessities of the legislation.

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

Huguenot Cottage

In February 2019, then interim-president Sharon Wall payments Huguenot Cottage as a template for John de la Howe’s different cottages.

Private accounts, public emails

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

In steering 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 important 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 type.

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

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

Perhaps one of the best recognized is Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal e mail server whereas serving as secretary of state, which garnered a lot consideration through 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 prime 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 prime officers at John de la Howe, together with Keown and Wall, have joined the rising record 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 growing probability that any written communication with friends happen through textual content or unhealthy authorized recommendation that that is some strategy to keep away from manufacturing via the state’s open data, the end result might be much less governmental transparency,” Smith mentioned.

Part of the issue is that IT workers and others who finally scour servers for emails conscious of any specific request may not know or have entry to emails from non-agency accounts. Instead, whoever has the non-public account would finally 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 legislation’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 would 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 may even exist in response to their request,” Smith mentioned.

At the identical time, there is not any legislation 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 an excellent 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 tackle 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, images, playing cards, tapes, recordings, or different documentary supplies no matter bodily type or traits ready, owned, used, within the possession of, or retained by a public physique,'” McCawley mentioned. “If the e-mail is distributed or acquired by member of a public company and the contents of the e-mail message reference public enterprise, the message could be thought-about 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.

Reporting to the state

In September 2020, Keown was copied on an e mail from JDLH lawyer Chris Johnson to Sylvester Coleman, the college’s director of enterprise and finance, about trustees voting to present 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 college.

Sylvester Coleman


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

Just a few 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 accepted particularly by the board. What occurred as a substitute was that you just took solely partial info to our lawyer and a number of outdoors companies, inflicting our lawyer to spend pointless time researching a problem about which he didn’t have all of the details, and giving outdoors companies the impression that we’re making some form of finish run across the ethics legal guidelines.”

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

“The board minutes must be up to date to replicate 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 advised Keown he solely checked with the lawyer as a result of the South Carolina Comptroller General’s workplace advised him “they may not make the willpower (for fee) and acknowledged that I wanted outdoors 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.

RIF email

Part of an e mail trade about doubtlessly shedding enterprise workplace workers at John de la Howe. These and different emails have been obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request to Clemson University.

“He thinks he has acquired you and he’s baiting you to vary 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 earlier than later? What are you able to all do to assist? I really feel betrayed in every part we’re doing right here from that group.”

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

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

Silencing whistleblowers isn’t on the record.

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

It’s not clear how far this plan acquired. 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 obvious is that Coleman nonetheless works for JDLH some 18 months later, and whereas procurement specialist Peggy Medlock retired, her place was ultimately crammed.

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 recommended bypassing the company’s finance chief. He proposed getting a second one that may log out on procurements and utilizing funds instantly from the inspiration that “the state would not management and Sylvester cannot complicate.” Keown and Moore additionally retooled the organizational chart of the college, 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 extra remark.

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

“I cannot enable these individuals to win,” he wrote. “I’ll work without cost if essential to make this occur and make this college profitable. All you must do is ask. THEY WILL NOT WIN and destroy this effort. We have come too far and, absolutely they notice, failure will end result of their unemployment. That is the one choice and there’s no in between. I might positive get in your crew and make it occur and never reduce my nostril off to spite my face. I’ve mentioned this to them a number of occasions, 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 legislation for public workers.



“It’s principally nugatory,” he mentioned.

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

“The restoration the whistleblower will get beneath the legislation 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 legal professionals to tackle whistleblower instances with out different actionable claims.

Should an employer wish to get across the letter of the legislation, they want solely wait one 12 months and someday earlier than expelling whoever blew the whistle with out attainable repercussions.

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

To perceive the way it acquired that method, 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 someday earlier than she would have acquired full-time employment standing.

The Columbia-based establishment claimed “gross negligence and insubordination,” however McGill thought it needed to do with the experiences she filed about violations of state Department of Health and Environmental Control rules. She sued beneath the comparatively new whistleblower legislation, enacted in 1988, and a jury agreed along 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, advised 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 legislation — which is simply what the Legislature did in 1993. That legislation has remained unchanged since, not even adjusting up potential awards for inflation.

He mentioned the legislation not protects whistleblowers.

‘A rattlesnake’

When journalists started asking questions final 12 months, paranoia reigned amongst Keown and his consultants — particularly Moore, who puzzled 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 college within the Charleston space — he would not title the college — “to destroy or discredit De la Howe to remove the competitors.” In one other missive, Moore concocted a fable a few cabal of newspapers searching for to oust Republican officeholders who’d set their sights on John de la Howe as a result of it grew to become a governor’s college beneath Gov. Henry McMaster.

Distrustful of journalists, Moore advised Keown and Wall that reporters “will not be your folks.”

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

Bland, Keown

Tim Keown, president of S.C. Governor’s School for Agriculture at John de la Howe, speaks throughout a Sept. 10 board assembly whereas chairperson Hugh Bland, left, listens.

Who ?

In April 2021, The Post and Courier reported on allegations of cronyism at John de la Howe, with many concerned with the budding agriculture college having shut hyperlinks to one another, typically 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 college. Other notable additions to the employees from Edgefield embrace Ken Durham and Scott Mims in services, who function Edgefield mayor and metropolis council member, respectively.

It seems to be 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 isn’t any secret. Wall advised the Index-Journal in 2019 that she’d recognized Keown for years and had tried to persuade him to work for the college 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 just a few different JDLH-related exchanges in early spring 2019. Then on April 29, 2019, he emailed Wall and two prime 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 might be wanting across the farm,” he wrote.

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

Keown additionally began getting common updates from the marketing consultant.

It wasn’t till May 23 that the college posted the director of the training heart place and Keown utilized Day 1, submitting a canopy letter tailor-made to the publish, a three-page resume, an inventory of six references and solutions to a prolonged questionnaire. The job closed May 29, he despatched an e mail to his community of ag academics 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 certainly one of three finalists and trustees voted him in as president Dec. 6, 2019 — about 5 months later.

It was a gathering 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 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. — practically 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 record Keown’s report simply forward of government session regardless that he was listed earlier on the agenda and had acquired permission to share his replace with the board early as a result of he had a battle with the assembly.

State legislation supplies that boards cannot meet until they provide the general public at the very least 24 hours’ discover they usually 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 may 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 record “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 will be taken solely could also be added to the agenda by a two-thirds vote of the members current and voting; nonetheless, if the merchandise is one upon which remaining motion will be taken on the assembly or if the merchandise is one through which there has not been and won’t be a possibility 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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