An inside look at the USC firestorm

Darla Moore (left) and Nikki Haley

University of South Carolina officials were shocked into silence in March when they learned that multimillionaire donor Darla Moore had been replaced on the school’s board of trustees.

But that silence quickly gave way to repeated efforts by USC officials to let Moore know how much they appreciated her support of the university, according to documents obtained by The State through the Freedom of Information Act.

Those documents underscore the vexing challenge that USC officials faced in the wake of Moore’s ouster. How could USC stay in Moore’s good graces while not angering the woman who removed her from the board, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley?

They also peel back the curtain on the Moore-USC relationship. USC officials take pride in Moore’s support of the university, but the emails show there is more than a little fear of her too.

For example, USC official Thomas Stepp relayed to Provost Michael Amiridis, the university’s No. 2-ranking executive, that a Moore associate, Jim Fields, predicted “Darla will be explosive” over the news of her removal by Haley.

“It will be interesting to see Darla explode to someone else :)),” Amiridis responded, using the digital symbol for a smiley face.

Stepp, the secretary of USC’s board of trustees, emailed back to Amiridis, offering a prediction of his own, concerning Haley, “I predict that if the Governor runs for re-election, she will face a well-financed opponent.”

“I’m sure Darla considers it a slap in the face and she will not forget,” Amiridis responded.

‘Lawyers and cheerleaders’

It was Stepp, on March 11 at 4:41 p.m., who officially broke the news to USC officials that Haley had replaced Moore.

“We learned a short while ago, and sough (sic) confirmation from the Secretary of State, which we received, that Governor Haley today:

1) Reappointed the Hon. Mark W. Buyck, Jr. to our board and

2) Appointed Mr. Thomas C “Tommy” Cofield, an attorney from Lexington to fill the seat held by the Hon. Darla D. Moore.”

It was tough news for USC, particularly for those in the business school, which bears Moore’s name.

“Spoke with Harris (USC President Harris Pastides) earlier on this,” emailed Hildy Teegen, dean of the Darla Moore School of Business. “I’ll reach out to her next week. Ugh.”

Pastides cracked a joke when Stepp emailed him that Cofield is an attorney whose daughter is a cheerleader.

“Lawyers and cheerleaders … isn’t that always the way?!” Pastides wrote to Stepp.

Stepp responded by pointing out what angry USC students and alumni already were complaining about — replacing financier Moore with attorney Cofield would cut the number of women on the board to one and boost the board’s already high number of lawyers.

“We really need another lawyer,” Stepp wrote in an email to Pastides. “We’ve only got eleven now! The Lawyers Committee can be the Board and deal with its surfeit of minorities and women. OK, I’ll hush.”

Unlucky ‘with politicians lately’

As was the case with Haley’s office, USC officials seemed slow to grasp the attention Moore’s removal would get from students, alumni and media.

Initially, USC tried to limit its response to Moore’s removal to a statement from board Chairman Miles Loadholt. But angry responses kept pouring in, forcing university officials into the uncomfortable position of explaining a decision they had no role in making.

The brouhaha had been bubbling for several days before Moore said anything about it publicly. If she ever reacted “explosively,” she did not do so in public.

“I was with Darla and others in Lake City today,” Mike Brenan, S.C. president of BB&T, emailed Teegen on March 21. “She was in good spirits. She was hosting a luncheon for Senator (Lindsey) Graham. In her introduction she stated that she has not had much luck with politicians lately.”

Teegen already had emailed Moore about Haley’s decision.

“I’m deeply saddened by this move as I know you realize,” Teegen had written on March 16, five days after she and other USC officials learned of the move.

As anger over Moore’s ouster grew, USC students and alumni decided to hold a rally at the State House, a move that put university officials in a bind.

Students and alumni were angry; the school’s biggest donor had been dumped in favor of a Haley campaign contributor. But USC officials tried not to give Haley, a graduate of archrival Clemson University, the impression that they were coordinating opposition to the governor’s move.

“In terms of our response, we plan to thank students who have shown interest and support,” Carolyn Jones, associate dean of the business school, wrote to Teegen. “Otherwise, I think we do not want to be in a position of encouraging or discouraging a march on the Statehouse as referenced in some of the (Facebook) postings.”

‘We need a huge turnout’

But USC officials later came to see a large showing at the students’ March 23 rally as a measure of support for Moore.

Pastides and Teegen went to see Moore at her Lake City home on March 19. At the suggestion of a USC staffer, Pastides took along pro-Moore newspaper clippings. “Think she might be amazed at how much she is loved!” the staffer had suggested in an email.

Almost immediately, USC officials began expressing a desire for a large turnout at the students’ rally.

“We need a huge crowd,” Luanne Lawrence, USC’s vice president for communications, wrote to the university’s State House lobbyists on March 19, urging them to spread “the word among staff and legislators” about the rally. “More explanation when I see you. Can you help tell others?”

Ultimately, about 150 people showed up for the rally, including USC administrators. No administrators spoke.

The tone of the rally was more pro-Moore than anti-Haley, though some students did rip the governor for what they saw as a purely political move that unnecessarily embarrassed the largest financial benefactor to public education in S.C. history. (Moore also has given millions to Clemson.)

Word spread at the rally that Moore would hold a town-hall-style meeting the next day, on March 24.

The meeting was billed by USC officials as an opportunity for Moore to thank students and alumni for their outpouring of support.

But the town hall meeting meant that USC officials had to navigate again the shoals between Moore and Haley.

USC trustees were told the “University does not know (Moore’s) message,” and USC was not behind the event.

Pastides “has spoken with the Governor whose staff had inquired if this is an official University event and the Governor understands it is not an event sponsored by the University,” Stepp emailed the trustees. “Clearly if the Governor or Darla Moore ever ask to have the opportunity to speak from the campus they would be given that courtesy.”

‘The word is getting out’

That was not the whole truth.

USC officials had been in talks with Moore for days to discuss her plans to address the situation. Emails show officials carefully had crafted a statement by USC — Pastides dictated some talking points — and prepared press materials to match Moore’s announcement.

That was because the USC officials knew Moore was about to parry Haley’s thrust, and USC’s coffers were about to swell.

“Hey Darla,” Business School dean Teegen wrote to Moore after the students’ March 23 rally. “Looking forward to seeing you here tomorrow! I was at the rally — I’d say that we saw about 200 folks there — not just students — clearly also alumni and the business community represented there.

“The word is getting out strongly for tomorrow’s Town Hall meeting — I know the students will be eager to have the opportunity to talk with you. and of course we’re thrilled about the big news (and have worked hard to keep that under wraps, to not spoil the great surprise). Feel free to give me a call on the cel (sic) if you’d like to talk to today — otherwise I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Moore replied, asking “what about boeing.” Later emails — between Pastides and Boeing officials — indicate Moore’s question was about USC’s desire “to identify ‘the right partnership’?” for its aviation research-and-education center with Boeing, or — as Pastides also emailed Boeing — maybe Savannah-based Gulfstream, the maker of private jets.

Moore’s “big news” turned out to be a $5 million donation to pay for that aviation center — the same center Haley successfully had argued against in budget discussions with legislators.