Berkeley Schools communications director indicted on ethics charge
The communications director for the Berkeley County School District was indicted Tuesday in connection with a district fundraising referendum in 2012.
Amy Kovach was indicted by a Berkeley County grand jury on one count of "Violation of Ethics Act: Use of Public Funds to Influence the Outcome of an Election," a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 or one year in prison, according to J. Mark Powell, spokesman for the state Attorney General's office.
He said the investigation is ongoing and he could not confirm or deny if there will be additional indictments.
Kovach is one of three district employees who are being investigated by the State Law Enforcement Division for alleged ethics violations and other misconduct during a $198 million building campaign referendum in 2012 called Yes 4 Schools.
Voters approved the building campaign by a 60-40 ratio. The district plans to build five new schools and renovate 29. The measure added $60 to the tax bill on a $150,000 house for three years starting in 2013, doubles that amount from 2016 until 2023, then goes back to $60 for three more years.
Superintendent Rodney Thompson and Deputy Superintendent Archie Franchini also were targets of the investigation, which was requested by Attorney General Alan Wilson in January 2013 after Daniel Island lawyer Josh Whitley and others compiled emails, calendars and other information they said showed that the trio worked on the Yes 4 Schools campaign during district time and using district resources, which is prohibited by law.
Kovach remains on administrative leave with pay, board chairman Kent Murray said in a brief statement about the indictment near the beginning of the Berkeley County School Board meeting Tuesday night.
"We are unable to comment further," he said in the statement.
Whitley said Tuesday that he is satisfied with the results so far.
"I am very impressed by the hard work of SLED and the Attorney General's office," he said. "I believe an indictment of a public official in Berkeley County is historic, and I am confident there will be more charges as this investigation continues. I think this case will have statewide impact."
District officials had no immediate comment.
A lifelong resident of Berkeley County, Whitley started asking about the district's building campaign in 2012. He believed the district misrepresented the facts about the tax increase needed to build and renovate the district's schools, and also questioned some of the projects that would be funded.
"As I started doing research, it looked to me like the campaign was being run out of the district office," he said. "I faced a lot of criticism for bringing it to light. People accused me of being against children, but I did this for the children. I believe the district set a poor example by breaking the law and trying to cover it up. They need to be held accountable. "
He originally sought an apology and an admission that the district erred in promoting the campaign, but the district refused.
That led to the investigation and other fallout. The district came under fire again in April when the school board voted to pay for outside legal counsel for the employees at the center of the investigation.
As of October, the district had reimbursed Kovach, Thompson and Franchini a total of $45,000.
Kathy Mahoney of Childs & Halligan said in April that it is the district's "statutory obligation to provide legal representation for its employees," because the board believes they acted in good faith. Even so, as recently as Feb. 4, residents continued to question the decision.
"If charges are brought and they are found to be criminal in nature, the district would be under no obligation to pay for their defense," Jeff Reuer of Summerville said during public comments at a Feb. 4 board meeting. "I ask how (the school board) plans to recover this money."
The investigation also spawned a second lawsuit. After former board member Terry Hardesty was prevented from talking about the investigation during public comments at a board meeting in June, he filed a lawsuit claiming his First and 14th Amendment rights were violated. Whitley represented him in that suit, which was settled Friday for an undisclosed amount that sources with knowledge of the settlement said was $65,000.
Hardesty urged the board to suspend the two other employees who are under investigation.
"It's a sad say in Berkeley County when an administrator is arrested for misusing public funds," Hardesty said.
Kovach was hired by the district in July 2011 after three years as director of marketing communications at MeadWestvaco. That year she received Trident United Way's Women's Leadership Council Behind the Scenes Hero Award, and was chairwoman of the Education Foundation. She is married and a mother of three.
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.