Editor’s note: Jamie Comstock Williamson was fired in June 2014 after just 11 months as president of Winthrop University. Since then, she has declined to answer questions about her dismissal, including the reasons Winthrop board members gave for terminating her. In late May, The Herald met with Williamson and her husband, Larry, over two days in Florida. This is the second of a five-part series from those interviews.
Jamie Comstock Williamson contends some of the Winthrop University trustees who fired her as president last summer – alleging nepotism and other ethical problems – had encouraged and signed-off on her husband’s part-time employment.
Issues surrounding Larry Williamson’s job and his wife’s communication with the Winthrop Board of Trustees about his hiring were the focus of allegations trustees listed against her last June.
Larry Williamson earned $27,000 as a Winthrop employee from September 2013 to May 2014. He primarily worked with local and state government officials, an area in which he had previous experience.
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You have misled trustees on the hiring of your husband to a trusted position as your special counsel.
Excerpt from Winthrop suspension letter to former president
Williamson will face the S.C. Ethics Commission later this year on a nepotism complaint. She now says she wishes she’d done things differently but argues several key things led her to think her husband’s employment was appropriate and legal.
In speaking exclusively with The Herald recently, Williamson asserts:
▪ Winthrop Board Chairwoman Kathy Bigham encouraged Larry Williamson’s employment
▪ Winthrop’s nepotism policy inadequately portrays state law
▪ School trustees never raised a concern about nepotism until the month she was fired
▪ She did not “knowingly” violate South Carolina ethics law or Winthrop policy
▪ Trustees had political motives to suspend and fire her
Williamson also points out that she reported her husband’s state salary income, as required, on forms filed with the Ethics Commission in early 2014. No state official, she says, raised a question or concern then.
Various school officials and Williamson have said Larry Williamson was temporarily filling a vacancy in the president’s office until the new president had time to hire a senior public affairs staffer.
Members of the Winthrop board’s executive committee have acknowledged they knew Larry Williamson was on the payroll. But, their accusations against the former president include that:
▪ She did not initially disclose to the board concerns raised by the university’s human resources director about Larry Williamson’s job
▪ She tried to cover up her participation in his hire
▪ She tried to have a key email about her involvement in the hiring “purged” from the university’s technology system
The Winthrop board claims the former president lied to them about issues related to Larry Williamson’s employment. Trustees haven’t said publicly whether they ever called for Larry Williamson’s resignation or whether they raised concerns about nepotism prior to the month Jamie Williamson was fired.
While (Jamie Williamson) will not be directly supervising (her husband), the argument that she is in the direct line of supervision may arise.
Campus HR director
Williamson says the board never asked for her husband’s employment to end and she never lied. The plan she told the board, she said, was for him to serve until the end of the 2013-14 school year.
The university said in a statement last week that it cannot comment on issues surrounding Larry Williamson’s employment because of the pending Ethics Commission hearing. The school said it has cooperated with the ethics commission.
“The board stands by its decision to end the former president’s employment … Dr. Williamson appears to blame others for her own poor decisions,” according to the statement, issued by Winthrop spokesman Jeff Perez.
Winthrop officials criticized Williamson’s decision to speak publicly on the issues surrounding her termination, alleging she’s chosen to not use “the legal process that she had diligently negotiated and agreed to at the time of her hire and that the board has faithfully and meticulously followed.”
Winthrop’s statement alleges Williamson’s claims are “rash and unfounded.”
Trustee ‘encouraged’ husband’s hire
Jamie Williamson says several high-ranking Winthrop employees and the board’s executive committee – including board Chairwoman Kathy Bigham – all signed off on Larry Williamson’s hiring in 2013. She said they never raised nepotism concerns or the S.C. ethics law until the month she was fired.
The Williamsons also say other trustees made comments before the president was hired about the couple being a “two for one” package that could benefit Winthrop.
Before President Williamson’s official start at Winthrop on July 1, 2013, she and her husband met several times with local government officials. That summer, Larry Williamson began representing Winthrop during some off-campus meetings.
Williamson said that prompted Bigham to suggest both to the former president and her husband that Larry Williamson’s role be formalized to give him more credibility while representing the university.
Williamson alleges that in July 2013 – her first month as president – Bigham told her Larry Williamson needed a job title and modest salary. According to Williamson, the board chairwoman said: “We can’t send him down to Columbia as just the president’s spouse.”
Larry Williamson said he met privately with Bigham on Aug. 2, 2013, on campus to discuss legislative matters affecting Winthrop. He claims the board chairwoman said he needed a formal Winthrop position to have more credibility in Columbia. Up to that point, Larry Williamson was working for Winthrop without being paid.
The Williamsons say Bigham did not mention nepotism or state laws that prohibit public employees from helping family members get jobs at public agencies.
The next day, Aug. 3, 2013, Jamie Williamson sent an email to her chief of staff, asking her to create a part-time temporary job for her husband.
That Aug. 3 email is the focus of the ethics complaint against the former president. Williamson’s hearing before the Ethics Commission is scheduled for Nov. 18.
If found guilty, Jamie Williamson could be fined up to $2,000 and given a public reprimand.
Ethics commission Director Herb Hayden told The Herald recently he could not comment on specifics of an open case. He said he could not answer a question about whether Williamson could be found guilty of nepotism if she was told to make the hire by someone on Winthrop’s board.
In the Aug. 3 email, sent to Chief of Staff Kimberly Faust, Williamson said Bigham encouraged Larry Williamson’s formal employment and other trustees were expecting it.
“Given that his activity has been stepped up … he needs a way to introduce himself, other than the president’s spouse,” the former president wrote.
Williamson wrote to Faust: “I want to work with you to create a new temporary … staff position for Larry. This would be a part time position, probably 20 hours per week … reporting directly to the chief of staff.”
Williamson suggested “a nominal salary ... to make (the position) legit.” She wrote, “Something around $30,000 per year seems low enough to not attract critics.”
Williamson says she wouldn’t have told Faust in the email that Bigham was “encouraging” Larry Williamson’s employment if it weren’t true because Faust also reports directly to the Board of Trustees and interacts frequently with the board chair.
Five days later – on Aug. 8, 2013 – Faust sent a new email to the president, mentioning a “new hire” but not Larry Williamson specifically. She called the position by the same title Jamie Williamson suggested in her Aug. 3 email: “senior counsel for strategic initiatives.” Faust informed the president that Winthrop’s human resources department was reviewing the pending hire.
A few hours after Faust’s Aug. 8 email, Winthrop’s associate vice president for human resources, Lisa Cowart, raised a nepotism concern.
Cowart wrote: “While (Jamie Williamson) will not be directly supervising (her husband), the argument that she is in the direct line of supervision may arise.” She advised the president’s office staff to read Winthrop’s nepotism policy and included the link to the document.
Faust forwarded the message to Jamie Williamson the same day but waved off the nepotism warning, saying, “We’re fine as long as the position reports to me rather than Jamie.”
Williamson: Nepotism policy inadequate
Jamie Williamson says she believes Faust was acting in good faith in quelling the nepotism concern.
But, Williamson argues that Winthrop’s policy on nepotism, provided by Cowart on Aug. 8, misled her and potentially misled other employees. And, the ethics law calls for public employees to receive a brochure when they are hired describing general ethics and nepotism guidelines. Williamson says the Winthrop board never provided that.
The South Carolina Ethics Act covers all public employees working at state agencies, such as Winthrop
Winthrop’s nepotism policy doesn’t include the full text of the S.C. Ethics Act.
The policy document is misleading, Williamson said, because it’s titled “State of South Carolina Ethics Act (Nepotism).”
One difference between the university policy and the full S.C. Ethics Act is that the university’s policy prohibits an employee from “causing” a family member to be hired, while the Ethics Act prohibits a public employee from “causing” or even participating in a family members’ hire.
Williamson argues that the difference is important because while she participated in her husband’s hire in 2013, she blames the Winthrop board for “causing” his employment and not advising her of a potential ethics law violation.
The Herald reviewed similar nepotism and ethical conduct policies at other major public universities in South Carolina.
At Clemson University, the University of South Carolina, Coastal Carolina University, and the College of Charleston, school policies link to the full text of the state law. In some cases at those schools, the nepotism policy document includes information that public employees are prohibited from both “causing” and “participating” in a family member’s hire.
Winthrop’s policy refers to the S.C. Ethics Act by name but does not link to the law on South Carolina’s government website.
Trustees concerned about ‘gossip,’ not ethics
One month after Larry Williamson was hired, the former president says she formally told the board executive committee of her husband’s job and salary.
On Oct. 2, 2013, the executive committee met at Winthrop. Williamson says she provided trustees with a list of new employees, including Larry Williamson’s name and pay. The discussion took place in a closed-door meeting, she said.
Williamson showed The Herald a copy of the Oct. 2 executive session meeting agenda that includes discussion of new employees and a copy of the new employee list she says she gave trustees. University officials, however, refused the newspaper’s request for documentation from the meeting, including a copy of official meeting minutes. Public agencies are permitted to discuss certain matters related to personnel in executive session and are not required to make certain executive session materials public.
Board members have claimed that they didn’t know in October 2013 about Williamson’s Aug. 3 email directing an employee to arrange the hire. Trustees have said the president assured them at the time that her husband’s hire had been “cleared” by the human resources department.
Karl Folkens, vice chairman of the Winthrop board, told The Herald last year that Williamson didn’t tell the board that a nepotism concern had been raised by the human resources department before Larry Williamson was hired.
Williamson said she told the board the hire had been cleared with the human resources department because the information available to her from staff members indicated the president’s office was following proper procedures.
Even without the Aug. 3 email in hand, Williamson said, she believes it should have been obvious to Winthrop trustees that she’d participated in her husband’s hiring. Williamson claims trustees did not raise a concern specifically about nepotism or state ethics law at the Oct. 2 meeting.
Months later, Williamson says, trustees raised concerns about “gossip” surrounding her husband’s employment. At least two trustees brought it up during an executive session meeting of the board’s executive committee in February, Williamson said.
One trustee, according to Williamson, said he was concerned that some lawmakers felt it “doesn’t look good” to have the president’s spouse working for the university.
Winthrop officials refused The Herald’s request for copies of executive session meeting agendas and minutes from February 2014.
In February 2014, the university hired Perez full-time to handle public affairs and legislative matters. Larry Williamson continued working until May 31.
Trustees meet with president over nepotism concern
By June, it appears Winthrop trustees began having ethical concerns about Larry Williamson’s employment.
Williamson says she met with Bigham on June 3, 2014, and the board chairwoman expressed concern over a rumor that a state lawmaker had plans to attend a Winthrop board meeting to complain about nepotism.
At the time, Winthrop trustees were also concerned about other issues swirling around the president’s office, including pay raises of up to 30 percent for some administrators and confusion about a summer school tuition hike. The board had delegated decisions about pay and summer school tuition increases to the president.
Williamson says she and Bigham discussed a long list of topics on June 3. That day, the board chairwoman also requested some information from the president’s office about Larry Williamson’s hire.
Three days later, The Herald asked Winthrop officials if Larry Williamson was on the Winthrop payroll.
The following week, Bigham and Folkens initiated a meeting with Williamson. They told The Herald last year that the June 9, 2014, meeting was to discuss how Larry Williamson was hired and to inquire about what the president had told trustees about the end date of his employment.
The June 9 meeting proved to be a critical moment for Jamie Williamson’s presidency.
She said Bigham again mentioned concerns that S.C. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, was planning to confront Winthrop trustees in a public meeting about Larry Williamson’s job. Norman told The Herald he had no such plans. He said he doesn’t know where the rumor started and couldn’t speak to whether anyone told Williamson that rumor last summer.
Other sources, including fellow S.C. Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, and Gary Williams, former president of the Winthrop Foundation, have said recently they were unaware of Norman planning to attend a board meeting to complain about nepotism.
Williamson said Bigham and Folkens on June 9 also mentioned the S.C. Ethics Act as a concern related to her husband’s employment.
The former president says she then reminded Bigham of Bigham’s suggestion that she hire her husband. Williamson claims Bigham responded: “I’m not going to comment on that.”
That response, Williamson said, raised concerns for her about whether Bigham would deny that she’d encouraged the president to hire her husband.
Williamson contests ‘purge’ claim
At the end of the June 9 meeting, Bigham and Folkens asked Williamson to provide them documentation of how Larry Williamson was hired. Trustees say the former president provided some records about one hour later but did not give them the Aug. 3 email.
Trustees have said the former president then tried to have the email record “purged” from the university’s technology system. The board accuses Williamson of calling a technology staff member on June 9 and asking that the Aug. 3 email be “purged.” Trustees contend Williamson “directed a university employee to destroy university records.”
Williamson acknowledges she made the call to the technology staffer and asked for the Aug. 3 email to be “purged.” But, she says she did so in order to figure out whether Bigham had already been given a copy of the email.
She chose to ask for a “purge,” she said, because she knew the IT employee would inform her before a “purge” whether the email in question had already been forwarded off campus. She says when she learned that the email had already been sent off campus, she said “okay” and assumed Faust had given the email to Bigham. The email was not deleted or purged.
She could not ask Faust directly because the chief of staff was traveling outside the country.
Williamson said she later learned that Faust had given Bigham a copy of the Aug. 3, 2013, email on June 3, 2014.
Williamson says she was confused by Bigham’s “no comment” stance on June 9 regarding Bigham’s involvement in Larry Williamson’s employment.
Williamson says she tried to contact Bigham on June 10, 2014, to set up a meeting to talk about the Aug. 3 email. The board chairwoman was out of town, however, and the meeting did not occur.
The next day, The Herald first reported on Larry Williamson’s job. The day after, the Williamsons returned his salary to Winthrop.
On June 13, 2014, Winthrop suspended Williamson.
The Williamsons say they returned Larry Williamson’s salary because an attorney who worked for the Ethics Commission at the time advised them that it would make the nepotism claim “go away.” But a month later, the Ethics Commission’s executive director in Columbia filed the complaint against Jamie Williamson.
Williamson can ask the Ethics Commission to open the hearing to the public in November. Typically, such proceedings are held in executive session but the panel’s findings and any penalties are made public afterward.
Anna Douglas • 803-329-4068
On Twitter: @ADouglasHerald