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Jim Holderman, controversial former USC president, dies at 85

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Students walk along the Horseshoe on the University of South Carolina campus. File/Andrew Whitaker/Staff

Former University of South Carolina president James B. "Jim" Holderman died April 3 at age 85, leaving behind a legacy of successfully promoting the school to the national stage while being plagued by a trail of legal missteps.

Holderman was the school's 25th president and spent 13 years at the helm before resigning in 1990, dogged by allegations of extravagant spending that included $700-a-night hotel rooms.

But he also turned the campus into a destination for world figures, among them Pope John Paul II, Henry Kissinger, and Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to speak. 

USC issued a statement April 3 praising his leadership. 

"(Holderman) presided over a period of growth and recognition for the university, including the foundation of the South Carolina Honors College, donation of the Movietone News Collection from Twentieth Century and campus visits from world leaders," the university said in a statement.

"The positive impact our university alumni continue to have in their communities is part of his legacy," it continued. "We send our sincere condolences to his family and loved ones during this difficult time."

His time at USC began to spiral out of control in the late 1980s when questions arose about trips abroad, mysterious weekends in the Caribbean, $700 hotel stays, and expensive gifts that were bought with public money for celebrities and select students.

When he stepped down he had been the state's highest-paid employee, earning $192,000 in salary and $90,000 in supplements from USC foundations.

He also received more than $500,000 a year in expense accounts, which he used for frequent travel, staying at the finest hotels and for entertaining donors.

After resigning from USC, Holderman pleaded guilty in state court to using the office for personal gain, and no contest to tax evasion. In 1992, the university's board of trustees investigated sexual assault accusations against Holderman, who was stripped of his tenure.

He was jailed in South Florida in 2003 on federal charges of conspiring to launder drug money. He also was accused of participating in a scheme to get visas for undercover agents posing as Russian mobsters.

He and a vice president at a small Texas college were arrested by the FBI in Miami as they were reportedly sifting through a bag full of $400,000 in cash, authorities said.

Reach Sara Coello at 843-901-2995 and follow her on Twitter @smlcoello.

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