MONCKS CORNER - Berkeley County School District Communications Director Amy Kovach pleaded not guilty Thursday to violating the state ethics act.
Kovach, 43, was given a $10,000 personal recognizance bond by Judge Kristi Harrington in General Sessions Court. That did not require her to put up any money.
Kovach "did not do anything to violate any ethics statute or regulation or any criminal statute," said her lawyer, Jerry Theos. "This is unprecedented. No one in this state has ever been accused, charged or indicted for anything like this."
Theos said the arraignment "really is just a formality to put Amy on notice officially that she's been indicted. Of course we've known that for a couple months."
The trial date has not been set.
Kovach was indicted Feb. 11 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 the state Attorney General's Office.
According to the indictment, Kovach did "use and authorize the use of public funds, property, or time to influence the outcome of an election." That included using district money to pay for a campaign video and other campaign materials and working on the campaign on district time during the 2012 Yes 4 Schools referendum, which raised $198 million to build and renovate schools.
"Protocol was not followed in this case," said Theos, who said he believes the case is politically motivated. "There's been no criminal investigation or prosecution of anybody, any employee of any school district in any county of this state. This is the first time."
He said he believes the case should have been investigated and handled by the State Ethics Commission. The investigation came about after former school board members Terry Hardesty and Scott Marino, along with lawyer Josh Whitley, took concerns about the referendum to state Attorney General Alan Wilson in December 2012. On Jan. 17, 2013, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh requested an investigation from the State Law Enforcement Division and the Ethics Commission.
Kovach's indictment came after a year-long investigation, which is still ongoing. Superintendent Rodney Thompson and Deputy Superintendent Archie Franchini also are targets of the investigation.
Theos said his client has cooperated fully with the investigation.
Kovach has been on administrative leave with pay since the indictment. In April 2013, the district reported her salary as $75,108.
The district has borne the cost of independent counsel for the three employees as a legal obligation because it believes they were acting in good faith, the board has maintained. So far, the investigation has cost the district $57,614 in fees to the law firm of Childs & Halligan plus $78,385 for independent counsel for the employees under investigation.
In February, the board voted to ask former Circuit Judge Victor Rawl to review the issue and to give them an opinion on whether Kovach was acting in the "course and scope of her employment" and if she was acting in good faith, Rawl said. He is typically paid $250 per hour for his services.
In addition, Hardesty settled a First Amendment lawsuit against the district earlier this year for $65,000 after he was prevented from speaking about the investigation during a school board meeting.
This month, Hardesty put the board on notice that he will file a formal complaint with the Attorney General's Office against individual board members if the district continues to pay the employees' legal fees.
On Thursday, about 30 people wearing stickers that said "Amy" filled the court benches behind Kovach and surrounded her as she left the court. Many of them were district employees who took leave to attend the hearing, spokesman Susan Haire 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.
"She is a person of great integrity and this is really a shame," Jane Pulling, one of three co-chairs of the Yes 4 School campaign, said after the hearing. "I think people who were unhappy with the outcome of the election simply will not let it go and that's wrong. When you hurt individuals who are guilty of nothing because you don't like the outcome of something, that's a travesty."
Whitley, who was not at the hearing, has maintained that the facts of the case show wrongdoing.
"The trouble with Mr. Theos' theory is that facts are stubborn things," he said.
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.
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