The Berkeley County School District was a victim of what prosecutors have described as the largest public embezzlement scheme in South Carolina history. Now it's suing to recoup its losses — and then some.
With former Chief Financial Officer Brantley Thomas now serving a 63-month federal prison sentence for pocketing at least $1.2 million of public funds, the district is going after its former financial and legal advisers who it claims should have caught Thomas' crimes sooner.
The district is asking for a jury trial and seeking at least $50 million. It also seeks compensatory, treble and punitive damages, which could result in a payout far exceeding what the district lost due to the embezzlement and alleged mismanagement of funds under Thomas' watch.
The lawsuit's defendants include Compass Municipal Advisors, Hilltop Securities, and the law firm Burr & Forman, which purchased the South Carolina-based McNair Law Firm.
"These professional advisers, charged with duties of loyalty and good faith, should have served as a firewall to shield the District from Thomas' corruption," the lawsuit states. "Instead, they abandoned their fiduciary duties in exchange for access to millions of dollars in public funds for their personal gain, all at the expense of the District and the taxpayers of Berkeley County."
The district previously sued the auditing Greene Finney LLP in November 2018 for failing to catch Thomas' crimes. With the lawsuit filed Wednesday, the district is accusing the new defendants of participating in "a complex and multi-faceted web of fraud, corruption, conspiracy, and professional negligence" that remained hidden from the district for years.
Brantley enjoyed a lavish lifestyle while working as the district's chief financial officer, a job that paid more than $130,000 per year. According to the lawsuit, the financial advisers introduced him to unspecified vendors who gave him kickbacks in exchange for district business. Those kickbacks included annual trips to the Kentucky Derby, cigar subscriptions and Omaha Steak subscriptions, according to the court filing.
The lawsuit specifically names as a defendant Thomas' former brother-in-law, Michael Gallagher, who worked as a financial adviser for years while employed by Hilltop and Compass. It claims Thomas was violating the State Ethics Act by helping Gallagher get work for the district and that Compass failed to disclose its conflict of interest.
Gallagher also hand-delivered rebate checks to Thomas that Thomas then embezzled, according to the complaint.
The Post and Courier reached out Thursday to all of the defendants in the lawsuit seeking comment. None responded.
In addition to the funds Brantley pocketed, the district lost millions more due to mismanagement by Brantley, according to the lawsuit. Because the district bought unnecessary insurance policies and overpaid for some construction projects under Brantley's watch, taxpayers may ultimately be on the hook for more than $80 million, according to one estimate by school district lawyer Josh Whitley.
The lawsuit delves into some other expenses related to mismanagement of funds. It alleges the children of district financial officers received district-funded scholarships as part of a kickback scheme (the dollar amount is not specified).
An organization that Gallagher helped create, the South Carolina Association of Governmental Organizations, also encouraged the district to purchase overpriced bonds issued by the Pickens County School District and Oconee County government, according to the lawsuit.
Financial advisers also charged the district for "unnecessary and extravagant junkets," including trips to New York, pricey hotel rooms, first-class airline tickets and tickets to Broadway shows, according to the lawsuit.
"This Board charged our legal counsel to right the wrongs committed against this District and the children and families that we serve," School Board Chair Sally Wofford said Thursday. "This lawsuit is a continuation of that charge and is major step toward ensuring justice for our children and families."