Lawyer had troubles at DSS
Attorney Frampton Durban spent 14 years in the classrooms of Trident Technical College teaching students and sharing his expertise about the intricacies of practicing family law.
His efforts are credited with steering several students into legal careers and shining a positive light on his employer, the state Department of Social Services.
The problem was, Durban was teaching classes on DSS time, double-dipping from state coffers and leaving his staff to pick up his slack, internal investigators found. What’s more, DSS investigators said Durban, the agency’s chief attorney in Charleston County, forged his supervisor’s signature on forms allowing him to teach at Trident, where he was paid $30 an hour.
The child welfare agency fired the Mount Pleasant man last year after an investigation revealed the veteran attorney had lied to his superiors, engaged in forgery and improperly used his state vehicle and other resources.
Durban, now in private practice, said the allegations are untrue, and he never did anything but represent DSS with impeccable integrity. In fact, his annual reviews were peppered with praise and high marks.
But Durban said a new regime at DSS had branded him an expensive troublemaker because he disagreed with their policies and had a relatively high salary.
The allegations, he said, were simply a convenient way to force him out the door after decades of service.
“There was absolutely nothing to this,” Durban, who earned a $78,000 annual salary at DSS, said last week. “I was ready to move on anyway.”
Documents in the case obtained from DSS through a Freedom of Information Act request offer a rare glimpse behind the scenes at a highly secretive agency that has the power to split families when necessary. The documents paint a picture of discord, suspicion and infighting among workers responsible for protecting some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens.
DSS made no public mention of Durban’s firing when it occurred, and word of the allegations only recently surfaced in connection with Durban’s work on a high-profile case involving heirs to $1 billion worth of the Duke family fortune.
Daisha Inman, ex-wife of the late Duke heir Walker Inman Jr., questioned Durban’s ethics in court documents and accused him of using insider knowledge from his time at DSS to defend Walker Inman’s widow against child-abuse charges.
Durban denied doing so, but said he removed himself from the case to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. He said he has always held himself to high standards and he has earned the respect he enjoys among his peers.
“I have an impeccable reputation with the bench and the bar,” he said. “They know me well and they know my reputation as a fierce litigator.”
But one legal expert said the alleged breaches were serious enough that, if true, Durban likely would have faced at least a suspension from practicing law had the case been referred to the state Judicial Department for disciplinary review.
“It would seem to me that if these allegations were presented to the commission on lawyer conduct and proven to be true, there would be a finding of professional misconduct here,” Gregory Adams, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a noted expert in legal ethics, said.
No one will say whether such a referral was made in Durban’s case, however, because of confidentiality laws surrounding the process. No disciplinary actions have been issued, and he maintains an unblemished record with the state bar association.
Complaints from staff
DSS began looking at Durban in June 2011 after his staff complained to agency officials in Columbia that he was spending too much time at Trident and dumping his workload on them.
He had previously taught classes after working hours, but he was now leaving the office for full afternoons and failing to make up his time, one worker noted in a written complaint. The worker stated the change had “a drastic effect” that was “putting the legal department at risk and causing delays in getting legal services to DSS and children that are in need of services,” records show.
Durban’s staff told investigators they had trouble locating him at times and his absences interfered with the management of the office and forced others to cover for him while he worked at least 10 hours each week at Trident. One worker said Durban’s activities were tantamount to stealing from the state and his staff.
“He is abusing his position as ‘chief legal counsel,’ and he is allowing ‘his’ cases to suffer as a consequence,” the worker, whose name was redacted by DSS, wrote in a complaint. “Simply put, something has to give or your legal department will either grind to a halt, or commit some act so egregious that there will be no way to prevent the attention that will follow.”
When DSS Deputy Director Isabel Blanco confronted Durban about his teaching hours, he reportedly told her that he introduced a seminar from 8 to 8:20 a.m. on unspecified days.
A Trident schedule, however, indicated he was teaching legal courses for entire mornings or afternoons, twice a week, during the fall, spring and summer semesters in 2010 and 2011, records show.
DSS investigators verified this information by staking him out and watching his comings and goings, records show.
Durban told agents he usually attended only a portion of the midday classes and that his teaching didn’t interfere with his job because he did a tremendous amount of DSS work at home at night and on weekends. He said he also had permission to teach from DSS County Director Frank Oakley.
Oakley told agents he had approved several of Durban’s requests to teach at the college in the past because Durban would always make up that time. But he told agents he specifically instructed Durban to give up the mid-day classes. Oakley also insisted he didn’t sign four permission slips for Durban for the summer semester that supposedly bore his signature, records show.
Durban denied forging Oakley’s name. But a handwriting expert with the State Law Enforcement Division concluded he had done just that on two forms and that a “strong probability” existed that Durban forged Oakley’s name on two other documents, records show.
Durban scoffed at the finding last week. “That is the opinion of one person who works closely with the internal affairs people at DSS,” he said. “If SLED felt they had enough evidence to pursue that, it would have been a criminal act.”
The DSS investigation also concluded that Durban had improperly used a state car for personal business. On one occasion, investigators said, he told workers he was taking the car to get an oil change and brought the car back with more than 50 new miles on the odometer. On another, he had a worker drive him to Charlotte so he could get his personal car on state time, an internal report stated.
Durban denied using state cars for personal business, but told agents that Oakley had encouraged workers to rack up miles on the cars “because if they don’t, they may lose the cars.” Oakley told agents he never made such a statement.
Durban also was using DSS resources to make numerous copies and Power Point presentations for his Trident classes. Oakley told agents Durban denied doing so when confronted.
Durban, however, readily conceded to agents that he had used office resources to prepare for his classes, but he said he had done so with the blessing of former director Odessa Williams. He said Williams told him that DSS and Trident were both state agencies, so it was all for “the good of the state,” the internal report stated.
Williams denied saying anything of the sort to Durban.
DSS officials suspended Durban without pay on July 1, 2011, and fired him a month after investigators concluded their investigation.
No criminal charges
Celeste Moore, DSS assistant general counsel, said late Friday that agency officials consulted with prosecutors in Charleston, the state Attorney General’s Office and the state inspector general’s office about the possibility of prosecution. No charges were filed, according to state records.
The Attorney General’s Office could not immediately locate records from those sessions. Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said her office answered DSS questions about whether a financial loss was required to support a forgery charge — it isn’t — but they didn’t advise DSS regarding prosecution.
SLED spokeswoman Kathryn Richardson said DSS did not ask her agency to get involved beyond the handwriting analysis.
Moore said Trident was aware that Durban was being investigated, but DSS never advised the college of its findings in the probe. Durban continued to teach at the school through the spring of this year, school officials said.
“This was a sensitive and complex case involving a skilled and prominent attorney so we focused on meticulous investigation and taking appropriate action in-house,” Moore said.
“Because Trident Tech was aware that DSS was investigating Mr. Durban’s employment with them, we believed Trident could inquire further and take action at their discretion.”
Durban said the school stood by him, as his peers have done. He said he is enjoying his time in private practice and doesn’t regret leaving DSS.
He said he thought about pursuing a wrongful termination action against the agency but decided his family didn’t need the stress and he didn’t want to bash an agency with a critical mission he still believes in.
“I have moved on from this and I am not going to interfere with the important mission DSS has,” he said.