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John de la Howe board meets to discuss 'Uncovered' coverage: 'I know we're above board'

John De La Howe.jpg

The S.C. Governor's School for Agriculture at John De La Howe is pictured on Wednesday, April 14, 2021 in McCormick. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Editor's note: The Post and Courier is partnering with the Index-Journal and 15 other South Carolina newspapers in the Uncovered project.

White columns line a cozy covered porch that invites rocking chairs, iced tea and long conversations — the classic Southern summer evening of yesteryear. This welcoming entryway fronts a modest brick ranch just off the highway in the history-steeped yet sleepy town of Edgefield, which was home to 10 past governors.

The house is not for sale.

The 1.1-acre property is deeded to Scott Mims, who sits on Edgefield Town Council and serves as facilities and campus projects assistant at John de la Howe school some 40 minutes away, and it is the residence Mims lists on his state ethics filings.

But the home's address appears with the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation's online listing for licensed residential builder Shannon Philpott, who was awarded two contracts worth $70,000 at the school's sprawling, 1,300-acre rural campus.

That digital record also connects Philpott to Edgefield Asphalt & Concrete Co., which Mims owns. Mims was the member of de la Howe's staff who put both contracts out for bids, the signature listed first on approving those contracts and the person to verify Philpott completed the projects.

The Post and Courier discovered their close business relationships, which includes running Edgefield Pool Room together, as part of its Uncovered investigation. The Pulitzer Prize-winning publication also found that Sharon Wall, who served as interim president through July 2020, landed a $1,500-per-day job with one of de la Howe's vendors, where she has received $52,500 for 35 days of consulting her former employer. The state normally requires a one-year cooling off period before agency heads are allowed to join a business under contract with that agency.

On April 26 — one day after the Charleston-based newspaper printed its findings and the same day it was published in the Index-Journal — John de la Howe's board announced it would meet the following morning, giving a little more than the required 24 hours public notice of a meeting. Still, trustees began the meeting ahead of its announced 10:30 a.m. start time and quickly went behind closed doors, discussing The Post and Courier's story and other matters until 1 p.m.

After returning to open session, the board spent a few minutes discussing an upcoming guest speaker before adjourning. As trustees were getting ready to leave, Chairperson Hugh Bland stopped to talk about the board's reaction to the story.

"Everything we've done here has been above the table," he said. "I think we've put something up here the state can be proud of."

Bland said he thought the article unfairly tied the school's past troubles to current efforts. He said he didn't know Philpott had business ties to Mims, but said he was proud of the work Mims and Ken Durham, de la Howe's director of facilities and Edgefield's mayor, have done so far. Bland, himself from Edgefield, criticized the story's focus on how many de la Howe employees and contractors are from Edgefield, saying if the school was near Charleston, there'd be more people from Charleston represented.

"My focus has been on preventing wasted money," Bland said. "I've never taken not $1. You'll never find a check written from de la Howe to Hugh Bland, not one."

When the school has faced scrutiny in the past, Bland said it was because people stopped looking critically at its operations and finances. He welcomed any efforts to review the school's records.

"I know we're above board here," he said.

De le Howe President Tim Keown took issue with the story's characterization of the school's recent history. When Wall became interim president in 2018, she faced the challenge of renovating buildings in severe disrepair to prepare the school for its 2020 opening. Keown said it was obvious that some employees at the time were not able to get the necessary work done.

"It really is insulting to the maintenance crew," he said. "It just feels like Dr. Wall and the maintenance crew did the work before I was even here."

Despite the added deadline pressure, Keown said he wasn't aware of any attempts or discussions with state officials to extend or adjust when South Carolina Governor's School for Agriculture at John de la Howe would open. The COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of complications, he said, stalling recruitment efforts and limiting the number of students the school could attract.

"We just knew if we didn't open, all that steam we had built would go to waste," Keown said.

He said he hadn't known about Philpott's business ties to Mims either, and said no one on the board was aware of that tie when the contract to demolish and replace some of the school's sidewalks was awarded to Philpott's business. Still, Keown said there was nothing inappropriate about that bidding process. Amid the pandemic, he said it was like pulling teeth to get contractors to bid for work at the school. Two bids tied for the sidewalk project — Philpott's company and another contractor both had the low bid. Keown said Mims suggested awarding the bid to the other contractor, but the school's procurement staff awarded it to Philpott because his bid came in first.

The board asked to meet to discuss the story and come up with a plan to prove school staff hadn't broken the law. While Keown said he was disappointed that other bids detailed in financial records weren't mentioned, he said he was more concerned about how the news story would affect students' prospects.

"Adults get in the way of kids' education sometimes," he said. "I don't want this to affect them in any way."

After the Index-Journal posted The Post and Courier's reporting to Facebook on Sunday, Keown responded to commenters while asserting the story should not have been published.

"This article is full of half truths just to grab a reader's attention," Keown wrote in one lengthy response, although he did not say what he thought was omitted or detail any specific problem with the reporting.

In a subsequent response, he lashed out at Richard Lewis, a former employee who recorded a truck he thought was associated with Edgefield Asphalt & Concrete on the campus with a paving crew.

“What was so strange to me was that Scott pulls up in a de la Howe truck, gets out, goes to the dually, opens the toolbox and gets a Gatorade from a cooler just as if it's his own truck," Lewis told The Post and Courier.

Keown blasted Lewis' observations, asking: "Notice how the former maintenance director is doing the cell phone 'investigation' from the comfort of the AC in a pickup truck?" After noting that Mims and others worked outside in the summer heat, he quipped, "No wonder the poor man needed a Gatorade!"

In his comments, however, Keown did not address the relationship between Mims and Philpott or whether there was anything improper with de la Howe approving the bids from Philpott's company, Faith Construction, despite his business ties to a school employee.

By Tuesday, Keown had deleted those comments.

Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554. Follow him on Twitter @tbartelme.

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