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 fifth and final part of a series from those interviews.
Winthrop University leaders improperly interfered in a court case last year involving two students, says former President Jamie Comstock Williamson. She alleges that at the direction of the school’s board chair, the students were given special treatment and their criminal charges were dropped.
The case was resolved in Rock Hill court about three months before Winthrop trustees fired Williamson. The case wasn’t related to the president’s dismissal last summer, but it was the focus of a Herald special report in November.
Two students – a Winthrop athlete and his then-girlfriend – were arrested in November 2013, accused of stealing a bicycle on campus. Campus Police charged them with larceny of the bicycle, which had been set out unlocked as “bait” for potential thieves. In March 2014, the case was dismissed without a trial.
Late last year, Rock Hill court officials told The Herald if Winthrop leaders had not interfered, prosecution would have continued against the two students – though a guilty verdict was not guaranteed.
Winthrop Police Chief Frank Zebedis has said the case marked the first time he’s ever been asked by anyone at the university to seek the dismissal of a student’s charges. Email records show the police chief told a Rock Hill prosecutor there was pressure to have the case dismissed and that Zebedis wasn’t happy about the request.
Williamson asked Zebedis to work with the court to get the case dismissed last year, but she says she did so at the direction of Winthrop Board Chairwoman Kathy Bigham.
The claims Dr. Williamson makes regarding Board Chair Kathy Bigham are false, unsupported, and uncorroborated.
Winthrop officials’ statement
Bigham declined to be interviewed for this series, referring all inquiries to Winthrop’s president’s office, which issued a statement.
But last year, Bigham told The Herald she never directed Williamson or anyone else to drop the students’ charges. She has said she only passed along her and other trustees’ concerns about the student arrests to Williamson. The conversation, she says, shouldn’t have been construed as a directive.
This month, in a statement to The Herald, Winthrop officials staunchly defended Bigham and said Williamson’s claims about the board chairwoman are “false, unsupported, and uncorroborated.” School officials allege Williamson is blaming “others for her own poor decisions ... rather than taking responsibility for her own behavior.”
Williamson accuses Bigham of directing her, during a phone conversation on Jan. 15, 2014, to ask Zebedis to work with court officials to get the misdemeanor theft charges thrown out.
The former president claims Bigham gave her specific instructions on Jan. 15 about which legal options prosecutors could use to dismiss the case. Williamson claims the board chairwoman suggested that Rock Hill prosecutors “nol pros” the case – which, records show, is how the case was ultimately dismissed in court.
To “nol pros” a case means a court prosecutor dropped criminal charges before a defendant goes to trial. Under most circumstances in South Carolina, a nol pros leads to the charges being wiped from the defendant’s criminal record.
More than half of the people arrested for taking a bait bike have been convicted in court.
Williamson said she raised concerns on Jan. 15 with Bigham about Winthrop asking prosecutors to drop the case. Williamson was worried, she said, that the request amounted to giving the students special treatment.
Later, Williamson claims, she found out that Bigham had been advised by fellow trustees to not interfere with the court proceedings. Winthrop officials, however, deny that claim.
Last year, Winthrop Board of Trustees Vice Chair Karl Folkens said he did not believe any trustee improperly interfered in the students’ case. He looked into Williamson’s claim that Bigham directed her, he said, and found no proof it happened.
In a statement to The Herald this month, the university criticized the former president for trying to “focus attention away from the conduct which actually led to her termination.”
I felt I should follow the directive.
Jamie Comstock Williamson
To support her assertion, Williamson points to a text message exchange she says she had with Bigham on Jan. 15.
In the text, Williamson told Bigham she had discussed the case with Zebedis and he would try to have the charges dropped. Williamson claims she sent that text because Bigham had instructed her earlier that day to solicit Zebedis’ help.
Williamson’s copy of the text message exchange shows a reply from Bigham. Her reply thanked Williamson and called it a “win-win” for everyone.
Williamson provided The Herald with a copy of the texts. The newspaper could not verify the text messages with Winthrop because the university does not have access to such phone records dating back to January 2014. The university paid for the president’s cell phone while she was employed at Winthrop.
Williamson said she passed along Bigham’s request to Zebedis reluctantly because the police chief did not want to interfere with the court or the prosecutor on the case.
“I didn’t want to make the call and he knew I didn’t want to make the call,” Williamson said. “I told him exactly where the pressure was coming from.”
Student’s mom emailed Bigham
Directing Zebedis to try to have the students’ charges dropped was “discouraging and demoralizing,” especially because of the timing, Williamson says.
On the day of the alleged request, Larry and Jamie Williamson, Bigham, and other senior Winthrop officials were visiting Columbia for the president’s first major presentation to state lawmakers. The experience and the feedback that day, Williamson said, was positive.
When Bigham asked for the charges to be dropped, she appeared to be speaking for the entire executive committee of Winthrop’s board, Williamson said.
Given her status as a new president only six months on the job, Williamson said, “I felt I should follow the directive.”
Two days later, Bigham emailed the president’s office to ask who Zebedis had talked with at Rock Hill city court, according to email records provided by Winthrop. She wrote: “I know this is sensitive, so I am open to (your) guidance.”
Bigham’s Jan. 17 email was addressed to Kimberly Faust, the chief of staff for the Winthrop president’s office, who also works as the liaison between the trustees and the school’s top administrators. In the email, Bigham also forwarded Faust another email message she’d received from the mother of one of the students.
Bigham has previously told The Herald she had never met the two students and has no connection to their families.
The forwarded message includes a Jan. 17 exchange between the Rock Hill court prosecutor and an attorney/relative of the student. In the message, Rock Hill solicitor Paula Brown wrote: “Prosecution decisions are influenced but not controlled by law enforcement input.” Brown also wrote she was aware of “some change in attitude” regarding prosecution of the students.
Winthrop email records show the student’s mother forwarded Brown’s email to Bigham and asked for Bigham’s help. She wrote: “I am sorry to bother you with this. I just want to keep you informed.”
The mother also suggested to the board chairwoman “maybe the magistrate you know can talk to her if necessary.” It’s unclear whether Bigham contacted any local magistrate judge about the case.
The next day, Faust responded to Bigham’s email saying she believed the student’s family was “getting close to annoying” the city prosecutor. She advised the family should “step back and let the process work” and that Winthrop officials should not make any more calls to the court.
Bigham then offered to try to “calm” the student’s family, according to the email.
Flip through the timeline below to learn how the case unfolded. Or, view the timeline here.
Student had trustee connections
The case and Winthrop’s request to prosecutors matters because students and their families expect equal treatment on a college campus, Williamson says.
One of the students involved – the male student-athlete – has family members with connections to at least one of Winthrop’s trustees, Williamson said. She doesn’t know the exact association or why Bigham or any other trustee had an interest in helping the students or their families, she said.
Bigham has said that one of the students in the case has a connection to a Winthrop trustee, but she has refused to identify that board member to The Herald out of concern for identifying the student.
Both students who were arrested have since graduated.
Rock Hill court and Winthrop officials – including Williamson – have refused to identify the arrested students to The Herald, citing privacy matters and an expungement order associated with the case being dismissed. Under state law, an expungement mandates that agencies remove from public records certain identifying information about a person who was arrested but not convicted.
Williamson says it is wrong that the students were given special treatment after their arrests because of the male student’s connection to the Winthrop board.
The Herald’s investigation last year into the bicycle theft case uncovered that more than half of the 36 people arrested at Winthrop since 2010 for the same crime were later convicted and sentenced in court. All people found with a bait bike have been arrested, police officials have said. The charge is a misdemeanor offense.
Winthrop Campus Police has used the bait bike for five years. The program has been recognized nationally has a way to curb college campus bike thefts. Similar theft deterrent programs exist at other schools across the country.
At Winthrop, police officers attach a location tracker device to the bike and leave it parked on campus, unattended and unlocked. When the bike is moved, authorities are notified.
Most people arrested for taking a Winthrop bait bike have been non-student local residents. Other than the couple arrested in November 2013, only one other Winthrop student has been charged in the program.
Records show the chances of a conviction are higher when the bait bike is removed from campus by the suspect. In the case of the two arrested students, police found them riding the bicycle on campus, close to where the bait bike had been staged.
Winthrop: Williamson’s claims are false
When The Herald first reported on the bait bike case last November, efforts to reach Williamson and her attorney were unsuccessful. Williamson was fired on June 26, 2014, amid allegations of several ethical breaches.
But, just a few weeks before her firing, The Herald’s questions about the case garnered Bigham’s attention, Williamson claims. During a June 3 meeting with Williamson, the former president says Bigham speculated about who may have leaked the information to the newspaper.
The next day, Williamson says she called Winthrop board Vice Chair Folkens to discuss the bait bike case. Cell phone records show the conversation lasted 46 minutes.
Williamson claims that Folkens told her Bigham “acted on her own” and against other trustees’ advice in seeking to influence the court and Campus Police. Winthrop officials, however, deny that Folkens said this to Williamson.
The former president’s claim, according to Winthrop’s statement this month, is “unverifiable” but “has been repudiated by the only other party to the conversation.”
Yet, Williamson says, at her request, Winthrop’s human resources director joined her in her office while she spoke with Folkens. While the employee could not hear Folkens on the phone, Williamson says she repeated the information he shared and discussed it with the HR director.
Part 1: Former president speaking out after year of silence since firing Part 2: Williamson weighs in on ethics, nepotism & her husband’s job Part 3: Board used employee bullying allegations to ‘discredit’ her, Williamson claims Part 4: Winthrop board neglected financial oversight, former president claims
While Winthrop officials contend Folkens did not tell Williamson that Bigham acted against other trustees’ advice on the bait bike case, Folkens has acknowledged previously to The Herald that the former president made allegations to him about the board chair giving her a directive.
He told The Herald last year that he purposefully did not tell Bigham right away about Williamson’s allegation. He says he waited until after Williamson was fired to tell Bigham because he did not want the allegation to influence board deliberations over the president’s employment.
Anna Douglas • 803-329-4068
On Twitter: @ADouglasHerald