2 York Co. lawmakers leading call for ethics reform say Winthrop should revise nepotism policy

Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.
Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

On the heels of the state Ethics Commission finding Winthrop University’s 10th president guilty of nepotism, Rock Hill’s state senator – considered by many to be the political authority on ethics reform in South Carolina – says the public college’s Board of Trustees should consider some policy and procedure changes.

The S.C. Ethics Commission’s consent order this month with Jamie Comstock Williamson – who was fired in summer 2014 after spending less than one year as Winthrop president – noted the university nepotism policy’s excludes portions of the South Carolina ethics law.

Williamson admits she violated state ethics law by participating in her husband’s hire to a part-time job in the president’s office in 2013. But, she has argued Winthrop’s policy is misleading in that it does not include the full language of the state ethics act yet it is labeled “State of South Carolina Ethics Act.”

Even if the school’s policy played no role in Williamson’s nepotism violation, Winthrop should address the issue and the board could take a lead role, says state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill.

“It really should be a mirror of the state (law) because the state law is the one that counts,” Hayes said.

The primary difference between the school’s policy and the state law is that the policy prohibits public employees from “causing” a family member’s employment while the state law goes one step further: prohibiting public employees from either causing or participating in a family member’s hire.

While Hayes said he believes Winthrop’s policy should match state law, he stopped short of blaming the differences in text for Williamson’s troubles.

The former president should have researched South Carolina ethics law and the state nepotism rules for public employees instead of relying on the university’s written policy, Hayes said.

Williamson has said she trusted senior staff members and the Winthrop board – with whom she discussed her husband’s pending hire – to avoid any ethical pitfalls.

The month before Larry Williamson was hired at Winthrop, the university’s human resources manager flagged a potential issue and referenced the school policy. The human resources concern, according to emails obtained by The Herald, was to whom Larry Williamson would report – not specifically the ethics act. Winthrop’s human resources manager suggested the former president’s husband could take a job in another department other than Jamie Williamson’s office.

Records obtained by The Herald over the past year show another senior employee waved off the human resources nepotism concern, telling the former president in an email there would be no violation as long as her husband reported to someone else at Winthrop. School officials have said Larry Williamson did not report directly to his wife while working.

Those emails between Williamson and her then-staff show no concern was raised about the former president’s participation in getting her husband the job, despite the state law prohibiting such an arrangement. Public records also show the couple reported their relationship and Larry Williamson’s job to the Ethics Commission months before the investigation and before Jamie Williamson was fired.

S.C. Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York

It’s really about citizen trust.

S.C. Rep. Tommy Pope on state ethics laws purpose

Don’t want ‘gotcha’ law

State ethics law issues – especially campaign finance and elected officials’ income disclosures – have been long-discussed by South Carolina lawmakers. The House passed legislation to change the state’s ethics laws but the bills languished in the Senate last session

The debate will likely continue when a new legislative session begins next year.

S.C. Rep. Tommy Pope, an attorney with an office in Rock Hill, co-authored the ethics reform legislation that died in the Senate. Like Hayes, Pope said he too believes the Winthrop board should consult with an attorney and consider changing the university’s nepotism policy to “mesh” with state law.

The variation, Pope said, is subtle, and the difference between the policy and the law likely wasn’t the cause of Williamson’s violating the ethics act. But, Pope said “best practice” would be to have a near-identical policy to that of state law.

In explaining “mitigating factors” in her case , Williamson pointed to an ethics act brochure that was never given to her at Winthrop. A section of state ethics law requires public agencies – such as public universities – to give employees a brochure prepared by the commission to explain regulations such as nepotism rules.

Simrill and Pope co-sponsored legislation earlier this year that would specifically strengthen the contested Ethics Act brochure.

Hayes and Pope said the lack ofa brochurelikely wasn’t Williamson’s main tripping point when the nepotism violation occurred.

But, Hayes said “if it’s the law (to give the brochure to employees), the university needs to follow the law,” adding he believes Winthrop officials and some other agencies may not be aware of the requirement.

Pope, too, says Winthrop and other public agencies should be providing the ethics act brochure. “You can never do too much,” he said.

Having a policy and ethics act brochure readily available helps keep state law and nepotism rules from surprising public officials and state employees, Pope said.

“The gist of it is putting people on notice ... We don’t want the ethics law to be a ‘gotcha’ law,” Pope said.

Simrill: Winthrop policy fine as is

Others say Winthrop’s policy is adequate as written.

S.C. Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, says Winthrop’s policy prohibiting a university president from “causing” a family member’s employment is no less stringent than state law prohibiting the public employee from causing or “participating” in the family member’s hire.

He said, “It was up to the president of the university to realize what the guidelines were.” Asked about Winthrop employees who didn’t point out to Williamson the potential for an ethics violation, Simrill said, “When the boss says ‘Make this happen; hire someone’ – it’s difficult to say no.”

Ethics and avoidance of impropriety, Simrill said, require mostly common sense. He balked at the former president’s argument that Winthrop’s failure to give her an ethics act brochure contributed to her ethics violations.

Simrill, Pope and Hayes all agreed the Ethics Commission’s findings in Williamson’s case appear to be a satisfactory resolution.

“When you have made it as high up the ladder (to college president), you don’t need to have a brochure (to understand nepotism),” he said.

The Herald last week asked university officials if they are considering changing school policy to fully reflect state ethics law. A statement from Winthrop President Dan Mahony said:

“As I have mentioned many times, I believe strongly in the idea of continuous improvement. At Winthrop we have already begun the process of reviewing our university polices to ensure they meet campus needs and comply with applicable state and federal laws and regulations.”

Winthrop’s one-page nepotism and ethics policy for employees was last updated in 2010, according to the school’s website.

The Herald also asked the university to clarify whether it gave Williamson the ethics act brochure and whether employees on campus now receive the required brochure. University spokesman Jeff Perez said, “The university expects all personnel, and particularly its president, to be knowledgeable about the laws which apply to their positions, to comply with them, and to seek counsel if there is a question about how to proceed.”

Ethics likely hot topic next year – again

Simrill, Pope and Hayes all agreed the Ethics Commission’s findings in Williamson’s case appear to be a satisfactory resolution.

Others members of York County’s legislative delegation could not be reached for comment last week.

Though Williamson is no longer a public employee in South Carolina – she and her husband now live in Florida – Hayes says it was important the state Ethics Commission investigated and brought closure to the issue. Williamson has agreed to pay $4,000 in fines and fees under the consent order.

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

“It’s an example of the state Ethics Commission doing what it should do – investigate and hold people accountable,” Hayes said.

Next year, Hayes – who sits on the Senate ethics committee – will remain a key player in political debates over proposed stronger ethics laws in South Carolina. Nepotism at public agencies, though, isn’t the main concern among lawmakers pushing for reform.

Major issues include a proposal to allow independent investigation of ethics complaints against legislators instead of House and Senate committee oversight; disclosures of financial contributions to political groups that often launch attack ads against incumbents; and requiring lawmakers and their immediate family members report more information about income sources.

Simrill and Pope co-sponsored legislation earlier this year that would specifically strengthen the contested ethics act brochure.Reps. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, Raye Felder, R-Fort Mill, Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, John King, D-Rock Hill, and Greg Delleny, R-Chester, were co-sponsors.

That proposal would have required the Ethics Commission to update the brochure and required recipients to verify they were given the brochure. Some say the proposed change is aimed more at elected officials who serve in state government rather than employees who work full time at public agencies, though the ethics act covers both.

Pope, who once served on the Winthrop Board of Trustees and has spent nearly 30 years as an attorney in South Carolina, said reforming ethics law can be “tedious,” but the technicalities of making laws is “more complicated than being ethical really has to be.”

Legislation on issues such as campaign finance disclosures and prohibiting nepotism exist, Pope said, to codify expectations.

“It’s really about citizen trust.”

Williamson’s violations of state law are:

1. No public official, public member, or public employee may knowingly use his official office, membership, or employment to obtain an economic interest for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated. – From Section 8-13-700 (A)

2. No public official, public member, or public employee may cause the employment, appointment, promotion, transfer, or advancement of a family member to a state or local office or position in which the public official, public member, or public employee supervises or manages. – From Section 8-13-750 (A)

3. No public official, public member, or public employee may make, participate in making, or in any way attempt to use his office, membership, or employment to influence a governmental decision in which he, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated has an economic interest. – From Section 8-13-700 (B)