Berkeley school board votes to continue paying legal fees for Kovach

Berkeley County School District Community Relations Coordinator Amy Kovach seen in January of this year. The county school board decided Tuesday to continue to pay for her outside legal fees to fight and ethics charge.

MONCKS CORNER - Before voting to give Superintendent Rodney Thompson a 3 percent raise, the Berkeley County School District decided Tuesday to continue paying the legal fees of an employee indicted on an ethics charge in February.

Two weeks after the Feb. 11 indictment of Communications Director Amy Kovach, the board hired retired Circuit Judge Victor Rawl, who is typically paid $250 an hour, to issue an opinion on whether they should pay for Kovach's independent lawyer.

On Tuesday, they heard from Rawl in closed session before returning to open session to take action.

When they returned, they voted unanimously to continue reimbursing Kovach for fees to lawyer Jerry Theos, which as of February totaled $48,385.

Rawl also sought the opinion of University of South Carolina law professor emeritus John P. Freeman, and both agreed that the district has an obligation to continue paying the fees because Kovach was acting in good faith and within the scope of her job, according to a statement read by board Chairman Kent Murray.

Kovach was indicted by a grad jury for using 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. She has since been on paid leave from her $78,336-a-year job, and on April 10 she pleaded not guilty in General Sessions Court.

Kovach is one of three district employees under investigation for possible ethics violations during the 2012 Yes 4 Schools campaign, a $198 million referendum to build and renovate schools. Superintendent Rodney Thompson and Deputy Superintendent Archie Franchini are also targets of the 16-month-old investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division.

Campaign opponents said the trio worked on the referendum on district time and using district resources.

Maintaining that the employees were acting in good faith, the school board has paid for their independent representation. The district has also paid $57,614 in fees to the district's law firm of Childs & Halligan and $30,000 for independent counsel for Thompson and Franchini.

Residents have several times questioned the district's decision, and in April, former board member Terry Hardesty asked the state Attorney General's office for an investigation into whether the board is using public funds for private purposes and whether the board is hindering the investigation. Hardesty said he believes the employees should be represented by a public defender if they cannot afford their own counsel.

"I am not at all surprised by the decision they took tonight," Hardesty said. "Essentially what they have done is tell the public that somebody has been indicted for a criminal act and now they are saying that those acts were done in good faith in the day-to-day duties of that employee."

Hardesty, who is chairman of the Berkeley County Republican Party, also sued school board chairman Kent Murray last year after Murray prevented Hardesty from talking about the investigation during public comments at a board meeting. That suit was settled for $65,000.

On Tuesday, Kovach's lawyer released a statement that said, "I am pleased our position has been confirmed by independent and objective legal experts, that at all times Ms. Kovach acted in good faith and within the scope of her employment."

Kovach "did not violate any criminal or ethics statutes. She performed her duties and responsibilities, as required, to the best of her ability and in good faith."

Theos called the action "politically initiated." The charges were originally brought to the attorney general's office by Hardesty, Daniel Island lawyer Josh Whitley and his brother-in-law Scott Marino, a school board member who has since moved out of state.

On Thompson's pay raise, the board gave the superintendent his annual performance evaluation in open session Tuesday and voted 7-2 to give him a rating of "meets expectations," a 1-year extension on his contract, and the raise. Board members Sheldon Ethridge and Phillip Obie voted against the motion.

The board was asked to decide if Thompson exceeds, meets or doesn't meet expectations. Board members Wilhelmina Moore and Frank Wright both said Thompson exceeds expectations; Obie declined to evaluate Thompson; and the rest said he met expectations.

The board's action extends Thompson's contract to June 30, 2017 brings his annual salary to $168,714.

The biggest discussion was whether to give Thompson a raise now or wait until the district's budget is finalized to see if other employees get a cost-of-living raise, then give Thompson the same percentage. But when Wright said, "If we think $5,000 is going to make a real serious difference in our moving forward into next school year, I'm very concerned." He persuaded the others to agree.

"That makes a lot of sense," said Murray, who had suggested that the board not give a raise now but revisit the issue later in the year. "I serve at the will of the board and I've heard a lot of good rationale for a pay raise."

Board member Doug Cooper then made the motion that included the raise and it passed 7-2.

Obie declined to comment after the meeting.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.