It's a pretty sad world when a school district public relations director has to do a perp walk for promoting schools.
But on Tuesday, a grand jury indicted Amy Kovach, the Berkeley County School District's communications director, on one count of violating the state Ethics Act.
Kovach is accused of politicking for a 2012 school bond referendum on district time and using taxpayer-owned equipment. She faces up to a $5,000 fine or a year in prison.
If the state wants to burn one of our prison beds for this, we need to rethink our priorities.
But the fact is there is pretty compelling evidence that the district did in fact violate ethics laws on several occasions by aiding and abetting the Yes 4 Schools campaign. And there should be consequences.
The sad part is, it didn't have to be this way.
But Kovach didn't have a say in that decision.
Just say sorry
A couple months before the November 2012 bond referendum vote, Daniel Island attorney Josh Whitley asked the school district for some public records.
He filed a Freedom of Information Act request for emails and other documents the district had related to the Yes 4 Schools campaign.
Whitley had organized the Berkeley Citizens for Sustainable Education group to oppose the bond referendum. He didn't do this because he doesn't believe in public education, or even in paying taxes. He just thought the district was, shall we say, less than forthcoming with how it planned to spend the money.
At the time, district Superintendent Rodney Thompson asked Whitley what it would take for him to withdraw his FOIA request.
Spoiler alert: There's your first clue the district knew it was too close to the bond referendum campaign.
Whitley said if Thompson would apologize publicly to school district employees - including Kovach, you would assume - for involving them with the campaign, and if district officials would stop the politicking, he would withdraw his request.
Thompson declined to do either. You've got to figure that was some bad legal advice.
Because Whitley insists he would have dropped the whole thing, and then no one would have ever seen emails between district employees talking about, even organizing, Yes 4 Schools campaign efforts.
Today, district officials - despite talking openly about clearing Thompson's schedule to campaign in public school board meetings - continue to deny any wrongdoing.
And so far Kovach is the only one taking the fall.
The state attorney general's office says the investigation into the school district is "ongoing," which can mean any number of things.
A lot of folks around Berkeley County speculate that this is just the first bomb to drop. They think Thompson is next.
Whitley is out of this now. He only wanted some public accountability, and can't guess what might happen next.
"It has been my experience that the attorney general's office is pretty straightforward," he says. "If you broke the law, they will indict."
That doesn't bode well for Thompson, or probably some other schools officials.
Whitley believes public officials shouldn't violate the law. And he thinks it is particularly bad for school officials to set an example of lying, since kids look up to them. Yeah, he's an idealist.
But he's right - the district is not above the law. You can argue that a school district has every right to promote itself to the public, campaign or not, and you would have a point. But it is currently illegal. And since they read the law in open meeting, it's safe to assume some of them even listened, and knew that.
Right now, Kovach is on paid leave and the school district continues to pay her legal bills. Taxpayer watchdogs types might say that's outrageous, but really it's only fair. The district's involvement in the Yes 4 Schools campaign - if it happened - was not limited to one person. Kovach wasn't in charge. If she did anything wrong, you can bet she was under orders.
And now she could go to prison for it.
Most justice system observers believe that's a bit harsh, that no one is going to be a guest of the government. But the courts are not going to respond kindly if the district keeps insisting no one did anything wrong.
The best thing for Berkeley County schools, and for Kovach, is for someone to man up and admit that mistakes were made.
Of course, if they had done that in 2012, we wouldn't be here. And Kovach wouldn't be doing a perp walk.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org