The Berkeley County School District has spent at least $407,137 in taxpayer money for legal fees connected to the ongoing Yes 4 Schools investigation, according to the district.
That’s the equivalent of about 13 first-year teacher salaries or $12.93 for each of the 31,476 students in the district.
“Obviously that amount of fees concerns me,” said board member Mac McQuillin. “I believe our public education funds are best spent in our schools for our teachers and students.”
Board Chairman Kent Murray agreed Thursday that he is also concerned about the fees, but said, “Responsible professional representation is rarely inexpensive. ... The Board remains hopeful these matters will be resolved as soon as possible.”
According to a response to the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act request from The Post and Courier, through Dec. 31 the district has paid, in connection with the investigation:
$176,311 to Communications Director Amy Kovach in reimbursement for lawyer Jerry Theos;
$91,202 to Deputy Superintendent Archie Franchini in reimbursement for lawyer Deborah Barbier;
$5,175 to Columbia-based Milling Law Firm to serve as witness counsel;
$134,449 to district lawyers Childs & Halligan,.
Superintendent Rodney Thompson has said he is a subject of the investigation, but the FOIA response does not show that he has been reimbursed for legal fees.
State Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office asked for the State Law Enforcement Division investigation on Jan. 17, 2013, after county residents brought him concerns that employees used district time and money to promote the $198 million bond referendum campaign to build and renovate schools.
Kovach was indicted by a Berkeley County grand jury on a misdemeanor ethics charge in February and a felony forgery charge in September. The ethics charge carries a fine of up to $5,000 and a year in jail and the forgery charge is punishable by a fine and up to five years in jail.
She has been on paid leave from her $79,995-a-year job since she was indicted on Feb. 11.
Last week, Kovach’s legal team filed a motion saying that Wilson should not prosecute her on the charges because he has violated the American Bar Association’s Rules of Professional Responsibility and Kovach’s rights to counsel. It asks that the case be handled by a local solicitor instead.
The school board maintains the employees were acting in good faith and within the scope of their jobs, so it is required by state law to pay the fees. Their decision was affirmed in March by retired Circuit Judge Vic Rawl, who was paid $7,000 by the district for his opinion.
But the Attorney General’s office put the district on notice in September that it is considering taking legal action to recover money spent for lawyers’ fees, and in December the school board voted to stop defending Kovach on the felony charge. Kovach’s motion says the district “bowed to pressure from the Attorney General.”
McQuillin, a lawyer, pointed out Thursday that he was not on the board when it voted to pay the fees. He was elected in November.
He asked the Attorney General’s Office for an opinion on the fees earlier this month and the response was that “the payment of such fees should be terminated immediately,” according to emails obtained by the Post and Courier.
He then emailed Murray about his “serious concerns about this Board’s previous votes” and asked to discuss the issue at the Jan. 13 meeting. Murray responded there had been no developments, so “I do not believe it is appropriate to put it on the agenda.” In another email to McQuillin, Murray wrote, “It would not be appropriate for the Board to take action on the issue without appropriate notice and opportunity for the employees to be heard.”
On Tuesday, Murray again rebuffed McQuillin’s efforts to discuss the issue, noting that the board was scheduled to get a legal update during closed session.
“As the case develops, we need to continually ask ourselves whether or not the actions being investigated are in good faith and make sure that our votes comply with state law,” McQuillin said. “We paid someone really early on to make that decision, and now we need to ask ourselves every meeting how the case has developed and if that opinion is still true.”
Murray said he believes that’s what the board has done.
“From the time the board initially authorized payment of attorney’s fees for these employees, it has been the position of the board that it would revisit the issue as new developments arose,” as it did after each indictment, he said.
McQuillin can submit the issue to be included on the agenda for the Feb. 10 meeting, Murray said.
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.