Emails suggest violation by ex-Winthrop president

adouglas@heraldonline.comJune 29, 2014 

— After one month as Winthrop University’s president, Jamie Comstock Williamson sent an email to a senior staffer saying she wanted a paid, temporary position created for her husband, according to records obtained last week by The Herald.

The records show that Jamie Williamson suggested on Aug. 3, 2013, that Larry Williamson be paid $30,000 per year – an amount she characterized as “low enough not to attract critics.”

“In your role as chief of staff, I want to work with you to create a new temporary (I think that is the correct word) staff position for Larry,” Williamson wrote Kimberly Faust, who also serves as secretary to the Winthrop Board of Trustees.

Download the PDF emails about Larry Williamson's hiring HERE.

As “senior counsel for strategic initiatives,” Larry Williamson should earn “some nominal salary associated with the position to make it legit,” Jamie Williamson wrote. She added that $30,000 was “reasonable” and that “no other school would ever get (Larry Williamson) for four times that amount.”

Less than a month later, Larry Williamson was hired for a part-time, temporary external relations job in the president’s office. His employment began on Sept. 1, and he was paid $27,000 until he resigned effective May 31.

The Williamsons returned the money June 12, after The Herald reported on Larry Williamson’s employment.

The Herald, through a request filed under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, obtained about eight months’ of emails between Jamie Williamson and two Winthrop employees involved in hiring the president’s husband.

Jamie Williamson was fired Thursday by Winthrop trustees after less than a year as president. Among the reasons cited by the board for Williamson’s firing was that she “directed a university employee to make a hire in violation” of the S.C. Ethics Act and Winthrop’s nepotism policy, according to a June 13 letter from trustees Chairwoman Kathy Bigham to Jamie Williamson.

The employee hired isn’t identified in that reference. But elsewhere, the letter mentions the hiring of Larry Williamson.

Williamson’s attorney, Bev Carroll of Rock Hill, declined to comment on Friday. She previously said the Winthrop board knew about Larry Williamson’s hiring. Jamie Williamson’s Aug. 3 email says “Kathy is aware and encouraging of us formalizing Larry’s role. She says the board expects it as well.”

The president appears to be referring to Bigham, who declined to comment on Friday. Bigham said attorneys have advised trustees not to comment about Jamie Williamson’s firing beyond statements already issued.

The emails are “pretty direct” in showing an “obvious nepotism violation,” says Barton Swaim, communications director for the S.C. Policy Council. The Policy Council bills itself as a private, non-partisan research group that promotes limited government, free enterprise and individual liberty.

South Carolina’s ethics law says no state employee may “cause the employment, appointment, promotion, transfer or advancement of a family member to a position in which the public employee supervises or manages.”

Earlier this month, in response to questions from The Herald, Winthrop spokesman Jeff Perez said that while Jamie Williamson had discussions about her husband’s employment, Faust initiated his hiring, approved his hiring and salary, and supervised him.

Perez and Faust declined to comment on Friday.

Perez said Winthrop “believes that its decision with regard to Dr. Williamson was correct and in the best interests of the university and the university community.” He couldn’t comment further, he said, because “there are legal issues surrounding Dr. Williamson’s departure and related matters.”

Earlier this month, Perez said Jamie Williamson did not hire her husband nor did she or the university violate any ethics laws or university policies in Larry Williamson’s hiring.

Faust, who was out of the country at the time, only confirmed then that she had the authority to hire and fire in the president’s office as Winthrop’s chief of staff.

President rejected community relations role for husband

The emails between Jamie Williamson, Faust and Lisa Cowart, Winthrop’s associate vice president for human resources, show that Williamson began suggesting roles for her husband at Winthrop months before she took office on July 1, 2013.

Winthrop trustees selected Williamson on Feb. 15, 2013, to become the university’s 10th president. Less than two weeks later, she told Winthrop officials that her husband would serve on the president’s “transition team,” a group of people who helped the incoming president acclimate to her new job.

Then, she pitched his skills as a former public affairs and university administration professional. In a Feb. 27, 2013, email, Jamie Williamson noted her husband’s career in the Navy and “extensive background” in higher education. He is a former college vice president and former executive director of the foundation at the University of West Florida.

Larry Williamson’s expertise, she wrote, would be a “vital resource to the transition team,” and he would play a role as her spouse and “as a special advisor to the president for external relations.”

No mention was made in the Feb. 27 email about Larry Williamson’s being paid for his work.

Nearly three months later, email exchanges between Faust and Jamie Williamson indicate that Winthrop would try to find a way for Larry Williamson to work on campus. On May 15, 2013, Faust suggested that the president’s husband could lead a new community relations office and help organize various nonprofit support efforts from Winthrop.

No mention was made in the May 15 email about Larry Williamson’s being paid for his work.

Faust wrote that the community relations role would give Larry Williamson “a natural entry into all community events and meetings” on Winthrop’s behalf.

Jamie Williamson rejected the idea, saying the community relations role “could easily be done (and typically is done) by a person with much less experience than Larry.” The suggested role, she wrote, would not be “the highest and best use of his talents.”

Instead, her husband could work as the executive director of the Winthrop Foundation, Jamie Williamson wrote.

It’s unclear from the emails if any other conversations occurred about Larry Williamson’s working for the foundation. The foundation’s executive director did not change after Williamson’s arrival.

In the emails obtained last week by The Herald, the earliest mention of Larry Williamson’s earning a Winthrop salary appears to come in the Aug. 3 message from Jamie Williamson to Faust.

The emails raise questions about when Faust officially became chief of staff and when she began supervising Larry Williamson. While the Aug. 3 email from Williamson refers to Faust’s role as chief of staff, other emails indicate Faust had not been officially appointed to that position in August.

An Aug. 22 email from Williamson to her husband noted that Faust’s new job description was not complete. “Until her title is official, we can’t announce her new job and we can’t answer questions about your role, saying you report to the chief of staff if there is no chief of staff,” Williamson told her husband.

Faust’s new position was announced in November. The announcement noted that Faust became chief of staff effective Nov. 1 – two months after Larry Williamson was hired.

The emails also show that Larry Williamson played a key role in writing his own job description. The day after Jamie Williamson wrote to Faust about creating Larry Williamson’s new job, he provided some “initial language” in an email.

“As Jamie and I have discussed this,” he wrote, “the position needs to have the widest possible purview and portfolio as to allow for assignments across a wide range of subject areas and organizational schemes.

“It needs to be general enough in order to allow for future assignments in areas that may not now be obvious.”

He encouraged Faust to change his wording if necessary. While his wife had not seen his input, he wrote, “unless I am seriously mistaken, it reflects some of our thinking and conversations.”

Five days after Jamie Williamson suggested that Winthrop hire her husband, Faust sent an email to the president addressing Larry Williamson’s job.

Her email states, “We have an opportunity to hire a senior counsel for strategic initiatives, highly qualified and willing to work for a pittance … We need to have him sign a contract before he comes to his senses.”

Jamie Williamson responded and included Larry Williamson by copying him on the email. The president said Faust should add “‘Other duties as assigned’ to the list of responsibilities.”

In an apparent light-hearted remark, Jamie Williamson wrote: “Perhaps our candidate will not notice this before he signs.”

Question raised about nepotism

Within two hours of that exchange between Jamie Williamson and Faust, Cowart raised a question about how the public would perceive Larry Williamson’s employment.

Cowart, Winthrop’s associate vice president for human resources, sent Faust a link to the university’s nepotism policy. She also wrote that, “while (the president) will not be directly supervising (her husband), the argument that she is in the direct line of supervision may arise.”

Cowart suggested that Larry Williamson could hold a job in another Winthrop office and his employment would likely raise “fewer questions (or) interest.”

Faust forwarded Cowart’s email to the president and her husband and wrote that if Larry Williamson held a job in another campus office, “it would take away some of the gravitas of the position. Plus, it will look like we tried to hide the position in another division.”

Williamson responded that she agreed with the “reporting approach” because it was more suitable for the job’s responsibilities and “also makes us appear transparent.”

Other August emails from Faust and Cowart suggest that Winthrop officials believed Larry Williamson’s job might continue past May 2014.

Earlier this month, Perez and Jamie Williamson told The Herald that Larry Williamson’s work was intended to be temporary and to eventually end once Perez was hired for public affairs and external relations duties. Perez started at Winthrop Feb. 1.

In an Oct. 1 email, Jamie Williamson wrote that she would “re-evaluate his role” once Perez’s position was filled but said her husband “will likely remain on staff part time.”

Faust told the president it would be easy to renew Larry Williamson’s employment every year by re-submitting his temporary hire paperwork.

Hiring of husband is ‘public corruption’

Swaim, of the S.C. Policy Council, said Winthrop trustees’ firing of Jamie Williamson is impressive because “normally (college boards) just rubber-stamp anything and everything the university wants to do.”

The public should care about Winthrop’s hiring of the president’s spouse to a position in her office because nepotism is a form of “public corruption,” Swaim said. If left unchecked, “all kinds of corruption can happen” at public institutions, he said.

Jamie Williamson’s emails about hiring her husband are “flagrant” violations of ethics laws, he said. Larry Williamson’s $27,000 earnings “may not be the most costly in terms of taxpayer dollars, but that’s always not the most important” part of nepotism violations, Swaim said.

The university’s employment of the president’s husband should lead to a state Ethics Commission investigation, he said. But, whether that can happen is uncertain, he said, because of the commission’s limited powers and scarce funding for investigations.

If they investigate, state officials might determine that Jamie Williamson never directly supervised her husband because of Faust’s chief of staff position, and therefore did not break ethics laws, Swaim said.

Larry Williamson’s Winthrop position may have been one step removed from his wife’s job, he said, but that was just a “legal nicety … it doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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