Former Winthrop president speaks out ahead of SC ethics hearing

Winthrop President Jamie Comstock Williamson listens as the Board of Trustees votes to fire her in July 2014.
Winthrop President Jamie Comstock Williamson listens as the Board of Trustees votes to fire her in July 2014. aburriss@heraldonline.com

The South Carolina Ethics Commission is prepping for a hearing to decide whether former Winthrop University President Jamie Comstock Williamson violated state law in the hiring of her husband to a paid, part-time position in her office.

Williamson was fired last year by Winthrop’s Board of Trustees. One reason trustees gave for their June 2014 decision was an allegation that the former president had violated university nepotism rules and the S.C. Ethics Act and lied to the board about her role in her husband’s hiring.

But Williamson has denied those claims, and she told The Herald in a recent interview that trustees Chairwoman Kathy Bigham suggested to her in 2013 that she formalize her husband’s role at the university.

Until that interview, Williamson had not spoken publicly about her departure from Winthrop.

Larry Williamson was hired as a senior part-time staff member in the president’s office in September 2013 and was paid $27,000. His previous professional background includes work in senior-level university positions, an advocacy position for higher education in the Florida state legislature, and a career as a captain in the U.S. Navy.

At Winthrop, he primarily worked with local and state government officials and assisted the university on strategic projects.

He resigned in May 2014. Two weeks later, The Herald reported on his employment and the Williamsons returned his salary to the university. That week, trustees suspended Jamie Williamson.

The Williamsons say they returned the money at the recommendation of an attorney who, at the time, worked for the state Ethics Commission. They say they were told last year that giving the money back would classify Larry Williamson as a “volunteer,” and the issue over the nepotism claim would “go away.”

Larry Williamson would not have knowingly accepted an unlawful position, the couple told The Herald last month. In a mandatory statement of economic interest form submitted to the state while she was president, Williamson said, she reported her husband’s Winthrop job and his salary.

The Ethics Commission is the state agency charged with enforcing laws that were passed in 1991 to “restore public trust in government,” according to its mission statement. The commission can investigate public employees accused of ethical breaches, hold formal hearings, and publish findings if a public employee is found guilty.

On Thursday, Winthrop spokesman Jeff Perez said university officials “cannot comment on any issues surrounding the (Ethics) Commission’s complaint, investigation, findings of probable cause or an upcoming hearing.” He said Winthrop has “cooperated fully with the commission and will continue to do so.”

Williamson: Trustees concerned about ‘gossip,’ not ethics

Williamson argued she did not knowingly violate the Ethics Act and that Winthrop trustees knew about Larry Williamson’s employment. She claimed that when the trustees’ Executive Committee met in closed session in October 2013, they discussed and signed off on Larry Williamson’s job and pay.

In firing Jamie Williamson last year, the board claimed that the president “misled trustees on the hiring of (Larry Williamson) to a trusted position as your special counsel.” Trustees also alleged that Williamson “intentionally caused documents to be prepared which falsely characterized the hiring ... in contravention of South Carolina ethics laws.”

Williamson said she didn’t lie to the trustees about her husband’s employment or the way he was hired and that they never asked her to remove Larry Williamson from the paid position.

Before Larry Williamson was hired in 2013, Winthrop’s human resources director raised a concern about nepotism, records show. Another president’s office employee advised the president in an email that “we’re fine” because he would be reporting to someone in the president’s office other than his wife.

In February 2014, Williamson said, trustees did raise concerns about “gossip” about Larry Williamson’s work in Columbia. At least two trustees mentioned the gossip during an executive session meeting of the board’s executive committee, Williamson claimed.

The trustees said they were concerned that some lawmakers felt it “doesn’t look good” to have the president’s spouse working for the university, Williamson said. In February 2014, she said, she informed the board that her husband’s work assignment would end at the close of the school year.

Williamson: Board chair encouraged hire

Her husband performed his job duties openly, Williamson said, often meeting on Winthrop’s behalf with state lawmakers, local officials and trustees. The Williamsons claimed that Winthrop officials initiated discussions about Larry Williamson’s working at the university even before Jamie Williamson was hired in early 2013.

Shortly after the she took office at Winthrop, Williamson claimed, Bigham said of Larry Williamson: “We can’t send him down to Columbia as just the president’s spouse.” Then, Williamson said, she discussed with the board chairwoman possible job titles and an appropriate salary for Larry Williamson.

Less than one month later, Williamson said, Bigham raised the issue again, saying Larry Williamson needed a formal title to have credibility while working on Winthrop’s behalf. The next day – Aug. 3, 2013 – records show the president sent an email to one of her staff members requesting that she “create a new temporary” position for Larry Williamson.

In the email, the president recommended a salary of $30,000. Part of Williamson’s email described Larry Williamson’s salary as “low enough to not attract critics” – something the S.C. Ethics Commission referenced in its complaint against her.

Williamson also wrote in the email that Bigham “is aware and encouraging of us formalizing Larry’s role. She says the board expects it as well.”

The Herald submitted questions to Winthrop officials this week regarding Larry Williamson’s hiring and Jamie Williamson’s claims. Perez responded in a statement, saying, “The Board of Trustees continues to stand by its decision to exercise its right to end the former president’s employment contract and is prepared to defend that decision in the appropriate legal forum.”

Williamson claimed trustees didn’t raise a concern about nepotism or possible ethics law violations until the week before they suspended her last year. She said that concern may have arisen because trustees believed a state representative was planning to attend a June 2014 board meeting to challenge and possibly embarrass them over their approval of Larry Williamson’s employment.

Bigham and others told Williamson and her staff in early June, Williamson said, that state Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, was concerned about Winthrop’s hiring of Larry Williamson.

On Thursday, Norman told The Herald he never planned to attend a Winthrop board meeting to challenge Williamson or trustees over Larry Williamson’s job, and he doesn’t know why anyone from Winthrop would have thought that.

Williamson said the concern over Norman’s alleged plans to confront the board came up again at a June 9 meeting with Bigham and trustees Vice Chairman Karl Folkens. Then, she said, she reminded Bigham that she’d suggested Larry Williamson be given a formal role, but Bigham did not respond.

Williamson was suspended four days later, and Winthrop trustees fired her two weeks after that. Since then, Winthrop and Williamson have been in a legal battle over whether the university breached the terms of the president’s employment contract.

Ethics group found ‘probable cause’

The Ethics Commission got involved in Williamson’s case in July 2014, according to the complaint filed by Executive Director Herb Hayden. A private hearing is scheduled for Nov. 18.

Hayden said his office could not comment on pending cases.

“We are eager for the opportunity for full and fair disclosure in an official setting where everyone is under oath,” Williamson told The Herald earlier this week.

The complaint accuses Williamson of possibly violating state law when she instructed a member of her staff to “create” a position for her husband. It references news articles about Larry Williamson’s job and Winthrop email records obtained by The Herald.

After an investigation into Williamson’s actions, the Ethics Commission found “probable cause” to hold a hearing into the matter, records show.

An Ethics Commission hearing involves a three-person panel chosen at random from among nine commissioners across the state to hear the facts of the case.

If a public employee is found guilty at a hearing, the Ethics Commission can levy certain penalties, including a fine of up to $2,000, public warnings or reprimands, restitution orders, or a recommendation to a state agency for formal disciplinary action.

The Ethics Commission can give Williamson the option of negotiating a “consent order” through an “informal disposition,” according to agency records.

Such an order would require an admission of guilt, Hayden said, similar to a plea arrangement in a criminal case.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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