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USC trustee who voted against Caslen, cursed at GOP leader's wife set to be ousted

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Students walk along the Horseshoe on the University of South Carolina campus. State lawmakers plan to boot veteran University of South Carolina trustee Chuck Allen from the school’s board next week. File

State lawmakers plan to boot veteran University of South Carolina trustee Chuck Allen from the school’s board next week, citing revelations that the former Gamecocks football star cursed at a legislator’s wife and son at a 2013 football game and still hasn’t apologized, The Post and Courier has learned.

But Allen, a 61-year-old attorney from Anderson, says the real reason he is in danger of losing his board seat is because he voted against the controversial hiring of school President Bob Caslen last summer.

The process that led to Caslen’s selection divided USC’s student body, faculty and alumni based along mostly partisan lines and drew an accreditation investigation into political meddling in the decision.

“There’s retaliation for the presidential vote going on right now,” said Allen, a former Democratic lawmaker who first joined the USC board in 2008.

GOP leaders in the Republican-controlled General Assembly say that’s not true, though they don’t doubt the Caslen vote is a factor. They plan to replace him with Seneca attorney Emma Morris when the Legislature votes on appointments to college boards next Wednesday.

Allen’s reelection race, in which he initially faced three challengers, has brought attention to the oft-overlooked process in which college board trustees are selected in South Carolina. All 170 lawmakers elect them by popular vote after a screening process. Often, personal relationships rule the day, but personal grievances can become major obstacles, too.

Chuck Allen

Chuck Allen. USC/Provided

Top Republicans say they soured on Allen after learning of his conduct toward the family of state Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, at USC’s home football game against archrival Clemson seven years ago.

Bannister’s wife and 8-year-old son — both Clemson fans, wearing Tigers colors — were sitting behind Allen in a luxury box for USC trustees and dignitaries for the biggest game of the year. Bannister and his other son were sitting on the other side of the box.

As the game wound down, with South Carolina leading comfortably, Clemson got a first down, and Bannister’s wife, Mary Margaret Bannister, stood and applauded. Mary Margaret Bannister is, by the way, best known for touching President Donald Trump’s hair during a 2015 GOP primary campaign stop to prove it was real.

An annoyed Allen turned around and cursed at her, telling her she needed to leave the box and watch with other Clemson supporters. Mary Margaret Bannister and her son walked out, her husband recalled. He heard what happened and caught up with his wife at the bathroom.

“I was told that Chuck Allen was the one who did it, that he was just drunk and not to hold it against him,” said Bannister, who was the leader of the House Republican Caucus at the time. “We left and went home.”

Bannister said he has repeated the story to any legislator who has asked his thoughts on Allen’s contested board race, and the story has continued to spread. “I will never vote for Chuck Allen,” he said.

Fellow legislators called it a serious concern that speaks to Allen’s judgment.

“To scream at a woman in a trustee’s box with her child is conduct unbecoming,” said state Rep. Kirkman Finlay, a Columbia Republican and a critic of the school. “If that kind of conduct is condoned by the General Assembly, what kind of conduct don’t we condone?”

Allen did not deny the story, though he said Bannister’s wife was screaming — not just applauding — for Clemson in the USC box. But he said the incident has been trumped up by people who want to get rid of him for opposing Caslen's selection.

The 2013 incident never came up when he ran unopposed for reelection to the board in 2016, he said.

Allen, a former star defensive tackle for the Gamecocks who was part of the team when George Rogers won the Heisman Trophy, initially supported hiring the retired Army three-star general, who was backed by Gov. Henry McMaster and many other Republicans in the General Assembly.

But Allen later switched camps. He wrote a letter to news outlets last July objecting to the hiring process, citing alumni objections, faculty opposition and divisions within the student body about Caslen's lack of academic experience.

“It is no reflection on the candidate,” Allen wrote. “I am also concerned about a bad precedent being set regarding the selection process.”

House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, a Rock Hill Republican, said that assertion defies logic. Three other USC trustees who voted against Caslen are running unopposed and will be reelected by default next week, he said.

“The premise … falls short based on other races,” Simrill said.

But Simrill and other lawmakers said the Caslen vote is a major part of lawmakers’ recent dissatisfaction with USC trustees. Lawmakers have also been critical of the state’s flagship university’s rising tuition and heavy reliance on recruiting out-of-state students to bolster its budget over the past decade.

State Sen. Katrina Shealy, said she didn’t even know about the 2013 incident. Lawmakers who were embarrassed over the process that led to Caslen’s hiring at one point proposed firing and restructuring USC’s board.

“I think it’s more about the Caslen vote, in my personal opinion,” the Lexington Republican said.

Allen said. he long expected the Caslen vote to come with consequences. At the time of the vote, he said, “it was made very clear there would be political retaliation against trustees who didn’t vote” for Caslen.

He said he worried the hire would jeopardize the university’s accreditation because McMaster had lobbied trustees to hire Caslen. The school's accrediting agency did investigate the matter, finding there was evidence of political meddling, but did not yank USC’s credentials.

“What will never be disputed by any political opponent is that my service to the university, from student athlete to service as a trustee, was done with dedicated passion to the betterment and best interests of the institution,” Allen said.

Reach Avery Wilks at 803-374-3115. Follow him on Twitter at @AveryGWilks.

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