The outgoing top executive of Charleston County’s airports paints a picture of an agency where some board members sought favors for friends and relatives, according to her July 23 letter of resignation.
Former Airports Director Sue Stevens, who also said she was belittled by the all-male board because she is a woman, is seeking “a fair severance.” Otherwise, she said, she plans to pursue legal action for gender discrimination. Stevens was being paid $211,000 per year at the time of her resignation.
State Rep. Chip Limehouse, the former chairman of Charleston County Aviation Authority who had clashed with Stevens while running the board, said Friday he had not seen the letter. But he believes her departure “is all about money” stemming from a request for a pay increase and contract she didn’t receive a year ago.
Limehouse described her complaints about discrimination as “a red herring.”
The Post and Courier obtained a copy of the five-page letter from another source after the Aviation Authority refused to disclose it Thursday. Authority attorney Arnold Goodstein said the document could not be released because it was “incidental to proposed contractual arrangements.”
Stevens did not have a contract with the Aviation Authority, but Goodstein said the letter involved an unspecified settlement she was seeking, which shielded it from disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act until it is resolved.
“Between now and Sept. 30, I am willing to negotiate an amicable resolution of this matter,” Stevens said in the letter. “Specifically, in exchange for a fair severance, I will sign a full release.”
She goes on, “If (the Aviation Authority) is not interested in negotiating a fair severance, I intend to file a charge of gender discrimination with the S.C. Human Affairs Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as well as a slander claim in state court. What has happened to me should not be allowed to happen to other women, and the public has a right to know how badly some members of this board behave.”
Stevens did not provide names of board members involved in personal attacks in her letter. She did mention Limehouse in his capacity as former chairman. He was replaced as chairman in January. Limehouse still serves on the board but sends a proxy to meetings.
In her letter, Stevens outlines her accomplishments during her 26 years with the Aviation Authority, seven of them as executive airports director, saying she “exceeded expectations.”
She pointed out her help in shepherding Boeing Co. to airport property, envisioning the $189 million expansion of the terminal at Charleston International Airport, establishing a team to recruit new airlines to Charleston and overseeing other major projects.
“Instead of being recognized for my performance, I have been criticized and demeaned by the board,” Stevens said. “No man would be treated this way.”
She believes some airport board members will never be satisfied with her performance because “I am not one of the good ol’ boys. Based on their actions, it is clear to me they believe I am an incompetent woman not worthy of their respect or even civility. ... Several male members repeatedly and routinely treat me with disdain, belittle me due to my gender, and continuously wage a negative campaign against me,” Stevens said.
She also said efforts to bring up her salary after three years without a merit pay increase fell on deaf ears, saying Limehouse’s standard answer was “that we had too much going on to deal with that issue and to ask him about it later.”
Limehouse said Friday: “She constantly badgered me for a pay increase and an employment package. I have a philosophical problem with that. I don’t believe public employees should have employment packages. They should serve at will.”
He said he was willing to talk about a raise but wanted to get other pressing issues, such as terminal redevelopment, the landing of JetBlue Airways and a land deal with Boeing handled first. “That was something that was a sidebar,” Limehouse said of the raise issue.
When Stevens placed her compensation on the agenda during a board meeting last summer after Limehouse told her not to, she said Limehouse retaliated by trying to seize oversight of the director’s job in September.
The board originally went along with the coup but later changed its mind.
Limehouse said only the chairman can set the agenda, not the executive director.
“Once that happened, she became combative,” he said.
Stevens said Limehouse then tried to attack her integrity by questioning her travel expenses, “implying that I did something wrong.”
Limehouse responded, “She had been running her own act. I was trying to get a handle on exactly what was happening.”
He said he asked for her work schedule, time off and speaking engagements.
“We weren’t trying to harass her. All of these times she said the board was harassing her, we weren’t getting any answers,” Limehouse said. “It didn’t become an issue until she wanted money.”
Stevens’ attorney, Nancy Bloodgood, declined to respond to Limehouse’s remarks.
In another instance, Stevens learned that some board members believed she was hiding negative management letters made by auditing firms when clean opinions had been issued for several years. On July 23, the day she resigned, she asked the auditor to present the last five years of audit reports to the board.
“To state or imply that negative management letters were kept from the board by me is a very serious allegation that is false and infers, at the best, I am incapable of performing my job and, at the worst, that I am acting in a deceptive and illegal manner,” wrote Stevens, who previously was the agency’s finance director. “This pattern of innuendo and unfounded attacks on my reputation has been unabated and continues to the present.”
Stevens goes on to say, ”Some of the members on this board have improperly asked me to provide favors, jobs and employment benefits for their friends and relatives. They appear to me to be motivated solely to provide financial gain for themselves and their friends and relatives.”
Limehouse said he was unaware of the allegations.
Stevens mentioned a former airport board member’s relationship with a construction venture that has a lead role in the $189 million redevelopment and expansion of the passenger terminal at Charleston International. She said that the former board member “received a $17,000 contract to perform ‘management’ service for Austin/Hitt, then recently de-partnered from Austin/Hitt so his company could move to the construction side of the terminal redevelopment project and start bidding on construction projects. When I have objected to these improper and unethical actions, I have been treated rudely and condescendingly in public.”
She went on to say she complained to Limehouse “about breaches of policy and ethics, but I was told, ‘The procedures are what I say they are.’”
Stevens also said after one board meeting she found a check for $1,000 made payable to Limehouse’s campaign in a folder with a company brochure providing information about the construction management firm. “The board later voted to give work to this particular company.”
She did not name the company.
Limehouse said he couldn’t remember the name of the contributor, but he said no one received work because of a campaign contribution.
“I get campaign contributions all the time,” he said. “At no time was any of that related. She is trying to damage as many people as possible.”
Stevens’ reference to the contribution raised the eyebrows of the Aviation Authority’s current chairman, attorney Andy Savage. He has asked state officials to see if it was improper or not.
He has not received a report on those findings.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Earlier versions of this story did not contain Stevens’ annual salary, which had been previously reported.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.