Ex-Winthrop president admits ethics violation; S.C. officials say board knew of husband’s job

The Winthrop University board voted unanimously last summer to fire former President Jamie Comstock Williamson. This photo is from June 13, 2014 during a meeting where Williamson was suspended.
The Winthrop University board voted unanimously last summer to fire former President Jamie Comstock Williamson. This photo is from June 13, 2014 during a meeting where Williamson was suspended. aburriss@heraldonline.com

Former Winthrop University President Jamie Comstock Williamson has agreed to pay $4,000 in fines and fees to the South Carolina Ethics Commission, and she admits she violated the state nepotism law in 2013 in the hiring of her husband to a part-time job at the public college.

A consent order, signed last week with the Ethics Commission, indicates state officials investigated the nepotism complaint against the former president and found probable cause earlier this year. A hearing on the nepotism charge originally scheduled for Wednesday in Columbia has been canceled.

The Ethics Commission released a copy of the Nov. 9 consent order Tuesday to The Herald.

The eight-page document shows state ethics investigators corroborated many of Williamson’s past claims surrounding the nepotism complaint – including that members of the Winthrop Board of Trustees knew of her husband’s pending employment before he was hired. Jamie Williamson informed the board’s executive committee on Aug. 19, 2013 – 12 days before Larry Williamson’s start date – that he would be a temporary part-time employee, with a planned $30,000 salary, according to the Ethics Commission.

Trustees have acknowledged they knew of Larry Williamson’s hiring, but have claimed they were unaware of an email in which Winthrop’s human resources manager flagged a nepotism concern. .

State investigators also noted in the consent order that the Williamsons disclosed their marriage and Larry Williamson’s employment to the Ethics Commission on Feb. 5, 2014 – more than four months before Jamie Williamson was fired. It’s unclear why the Ethics Commission did not act then.

Investigators found Winthrop’s nepotism policy does not include the full language of relevant state law – something Williamson has said was misleading for employees. Williamson also has said Winthrop officials never gave her a description of the S.C. Ethics Act – something public employers are required by law to provide.

The Ethics Commission will not mandate that Winthrop change its nepotism policy to fully reflect state law, said Herb Hayden, the agency’s executive director, on Tuesday. That decision, he said, is up to the Winthrop Board of Trustees.

The Ethics Commission also does not plan to follow up with the university to ensure employees are given the brochure with guidance on the state ethics law.

The Ethics Commission is 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 an employee is found guilty.

Much of the commission’s consent order covers Williamson’s statements about the case against her and an explanation of why she believed it was acceptable for her to have participated in her husband’s hiring. Her account of what happened was first reported by The Herald in July.

Past coverage: Original ethics complaint against Williamson Ex-Winthrop president speaks out ahead of SC ethics hearing Williamson says trustees approved husband’s job Winthrop president’s husband made $27K as part-time employee

When asked about the Ethics Commission’s investigation, Jamie Williamson told The Herald it “was thorough, fair and impartial.” The consent order, she said, “validates” her account of events that led to her husband’s employment at Winthrop.

“I am satisfied that the public record is now clear regarding my actions and the actions of the people I thought were trusted advisers,” she said.

Williamson said she’s satisfied the consent order includes “all of the mitigating factors” of her case. She signed the agreement rather than moving forward with Wednesday’s hearing.

“No additional public good could come from a formal hearing,” she said, “so I opted for the consent order as the most honorable and expeditious way to bring this matter to a close.”

The resolution to Williamson’s case calls for the fees and fines to be paid within two months.

The Ethics Commission has the authority to fine public employees up to $2,000 per violation, if found guilty. Williamson has been found in violation of three sections of state law related to nepotism. She’ll pay half of the maximum fines allowed, totaling $3,000. She also must pay a $1,000 administrative fee.

Williamson maintains no trustee and no senior employees warned her of the potential of violating S.C. law, despite knowing of her husband’s job.

The lesser fines were determined as part of the negotiation “in lieu of” an ethics hearing, Hayden said.

Winthrop spokesman Jeff Perez issued a statement Tuesday from the university saying, “The Ethics Commission’s findings and Dr. Williamson’s admission support the decision of Winthrop’s Board of Trustees to terminate her employment.”

Read the full Ethics Commission consent order here.

‘Mitigating factors’

Williamson has asserted that others at Winthrop encouraged her to “formalize” her husband’s role on campus as a liaison to South Carolina legislators and other government officials. Email records show the former president suggested a job title for her husband, as well as his salary.

Those emails – as well as other evidence showing Williamson told trustees about her husband’s pending hire – were part of the ethics investigation.

The consent order lists “mitigating factors” in Williamson’s case, including her statement that, “at no point ... did any member of the Winthrop Board of Trustees or administration express ... any concern regarding a potential ethical violation or nepotism policy violation.”

Another such factor noted by the Ethics Commission: The Williamsons returned to the university the money Larry Williamson was paid. They did that on the advice of a former attorney for the Ethics Commission, who told them returning the salary would negate Larry Williamson’s employment and make the nepotism concern “go away.”

Larry Williamson was hired on Sept. 1, 2013, by Kimberly Faust, the secretary to the Winthrop Board of Trustees, who was later promoted to chief of staff in the president’s office. He worked about 20 hours per week until May 31, 2014. No one else was interviewed for the position.

Jamie Williamson has acknowledged Winthrop’s human resources manager raised a concern about possible nepotism in August 2013. In an email to Faust, associate vice president of human resources Lisa Cowart suggested Faust read the university’s nepotism policy.

The message was later forwarded to Williamson, but Faust appears to wave off a nepotism concern, writing to Williamson: “We’re fine as long as the position reports to me rather than Jamie (Williamson).” The consent order states Williamson “accepted” Faust’s conclusion via email.

But, Williamson said, because the university’s policy – labeled as the “State of South Carolina Ethics Act” – did not explicitly state she could not “participate” in her husband’s hire, she believed she was acting legally.

One difference between 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 “participating” in a family members’ hiring.

Williamson argues that the difference is important, because while she participated in her husband’s hiring in 2013, she blames Winthrop trustees for “causing” his employment and not advising her of a potential ethics law violation. The Ethics Commission’s investigation confirmed others at the university, including trustees Chairwoman Kathy Bigham, discussed Larry Williamson’s serving the college before Jamie Williamson took office.

Williamson, who was Winthrop’s president for less than a year, has maintained that no trustee or member of the university’s senior staff warned her of the potential nepotism violation. In the consent order, Williamson acknowledges that her involvement in her husband’s hiring violated the law, but she said the violation was unintentional.

At the time of her husband’s hiring, the former president had been in office for about two months.

Salary returned

The Herald first reported on Larry Williamson’s employment at Winthrop in June 2014. Days later, university trustees suspended the former president and the couple returned the $27,000 Larry Williamson had been paid.

Two weeks later, trustees fired Jamie Williamson, citing a violation of state nepotism law, among other reasons. Trustees also alleged Williamson lied to them, tried to have public records related to her husband’s hiring destroyed, and acted in a hostile and demeaning manner to campus employees. Williamson has denied all those claims.

A legal battle between Williamson and Winthrop continues over allegations of breach of her employment contract, defamation and slander. When she was fired, Winthrop trustees dismissed her without any further pay of her $300,000 salary.

Her attorney argued then that trustees should have given Williamson written notice of their complaints and should have been given the chance to correct any problems.

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