Some members of the General Assembly say they will file legislation soon to change the make-up of the board at South Carolina State University in the wake of a public corruption scandal involving the Orangeburg school.
State Reps. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, and Bakari Sellers, D-Denmark, said they expect a bill to be filed soon in the House. Govan, a graduate of the university, said he hopes to file it by the end of the month, after getting other members, especially House leadership, to buy into it. And he expects a companion bill in the Senate to be filed at the same time. He couldn’t yet describe specifically how the board would be changed.
Sellers said the proposed legislation will address “glaring transparency and accountability issues.”
State. Sen. Robert Ford, a Charleston Democrat, said he also expects bills to filed, but he doesn’t support the moves. He said he’s concerned they could negatively affect a group of board members who have behaved ethically and tried in the past to eliminate corruption at the state’s only historically black public university. He included in that group Walter Tobin, the board’s current chairman. A group of Orangeburg-area legislators, of which Govan and Sellers are part, previously have supported S.C. State leaders who did not have the best interests of the school in mind, Ford said.
Ford said he has been concerned about corruption at the school for several years. After a 2010 Post and Courier report raised financial and management concerns about the school’s long-stalled James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center, Ford and a bipartisan group of state legislators called for an investigation from their watchdog, the Legislative Audit Council. The council’s report cited severe management problems at the center.
The bills, like similar versions last year, are being filed in reaction to a public corruption case in which the school currently is embroiled, Govan said. Concerned legislators knew before the session ended last year about corruption allegations at the school, he said. The university, however, is “a victim in the case, not a perpetrator,” he said. “It’s being made to look bad.”
On Thursday, former board Chairman Jonathan Pinson, 42, of Simpsonville was indicted on charges that he attempted to use his influence at the university to broker a land deal in exchange for a $100,000 Porsche Cayenne. He also was accused of steering a contract to a business associate to promote the school’s 2011 homecoming concert. Pinson and Eric Robinson, 42, of Greer were both charged with attempting to affect interstate commerce by extortion and participating in an alleged kickback scheme in connection with the concert.
Both men pleaded not guilty to all counts of the indictment.
Earlier Thursday, Michael Bartley, 48, the school’s former police chief, pleaded guilty to conspiracy for his role in the land deal, for which the Orangeburg resident would have received an ATV and about $30,000 in cash.
Law enforcement officials have said more indictments and charges are expected.
The House last year passed a bill filed by Govan to alter the make-up of the board, but it failed in a conference committee after an amendment was added by Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, another Orangeburg Democrat. Govan’s bill would have removed the entire board, and new trustees would have been elected by the General Assembly by June 30, 2012.
Cobb-Hunter’s controversial amendment would have replaced the university’s board with an interim, seven-member board. Three members would been selected by the House speaker; three by the Senate president pro tem; and one by the governor.
At the time, Cobb-Hunter said that while the Legislature now elects most members of the school’s board, black leaders and alumni have had a lot of influence over who is elected. Her amendment was aimed at reducing that influence and bringing in an experienced, qualified interim board that could turn around the school’s fundamental problems before a permanent board was elected, she said.
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.