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Uncovered

Allegations of cronyism and ethical breaches sprout at SC's newest governor's school

Seeds of Conflict

Allegations of cronyism and ethical breaches sprout at SC's newest governor's school

Editor's note: This story was done in collaboration with The Index-Journal of Greenwood, an Uncovered partner.

McCORMICK — The John de la Howe school campus sits on a bluff by Lake Thurmond, hidden by 1,300 acres of forests and fields. It’s South Carolina’s oldest public high school — and one of the state’s newest and most ambitious educational experiments: a statewide governor’s school for students interested in agriculture.

But in the push to create a new era for this old school, school leaders waded into murky waters involving state laws designed to prevent conflicts of interest and fraud, a Post and Courier Uncovered investigation found. Among the findings:

The school poured $70,000 into the pocket of a paving contractor with business ties to a school construction manager. The state’s ethics law prohibits government employees from using their positions to benefit business associates.

And when the school’s top official quit last year, she immediately went to work for the school’s consultant, a company that charged $1,500 a day. The ethics law also prohibits employees from milking their government experiences by cashing in as private-sector contractors.

Meantime, the school has burned through $5.1 million to upgrade the campus, but doesn’t yet have enough students to fill a single school bus. And school officials estimate it will cost at least $14 million more to bring campus buildings and enrollment numbers in line with the state’s other governor's schools in Greenville and Hartsville.

School leaders paint a different portrait, saying they’ve worked hard to reinvent an institution with a past marred by mismanagement and waste. They said they had to make difficult decisions early on, such as laying off half of the staff. This freed up money to change the school’s mission from a haven for troubled youths to a highly selective magnet school. They said these changes cultivated a crop of angry former employees who are still working against them.

While the school only has about 40 students this year, they hope to have about 75 come fall — and more than 160 in the future.

And they argue that the millions of tax dollars they’re spending now will pay dividends for generations.

But a deeper look reveals a lesson for all government agencies: how cozy relationships and loose adherence to procurement and government accountability laws can lead to ethical quagmires, no matter how good the intentions.

To understand where the school is today, it’s helpful to look at its storied past and more recent troubles.

And a good place to start is with a Frenchman from Charleston who bought land here long ago, then named it after a river in Hades whose waters cause drinkers to forget their sins.

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Little River in the western part of the Long Cane Ranger District off of the Savannah River makes up the peninsula of the John de la Howe school and its 1,300 acres of land. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

On the river of forgetfulness

This man was John de la Howe, a physician who immigrated from France in the 1760s. He settled in Charleston and soon married a widow. He bought a mansion on Church Street, close to the harbor, and began acquiring land in the hinterlands. He cobbled together a sprawling farm in what today is McCormick County. Then he left his wife behind in Charleston and moved to the farm with another woman.

He named his new home Lethe, after a river in Greek mythology. It was said that those who drank from the River Lethe lost all of their memories. In this forgotten place, De la Howe grew indigo and practiced medicine until his death in 1797. He apparently was childless despite his past relationships. With no direct heirs, he decreed in his will that his estate be turned into an “agricultural seminary” for orphans.

Time passed, and the school educated thousands of South Carolina children on these forested and farmed hills. The school became an independent state agency in 1918. But as orphanages fell out of favor, the school’s mission changed to one that educated children with behavioral problems. More decades passed, and enrollment declined as counties established similar programs.

By 2016, the school was on the brink of closure.

Talk to current and former employees and you often hear the words “middle of nowhere.” There, in the woods, in South Carolina’s second smallest county, the school became a lesson in bloated government.

Its budget eclipsed $5 million a year. Lawmakers questioned why the state was spending so much money on so few students. At one point, enrollment was so low that the cost per student exceeded $58,365 — that’s more than a year of tuition and room and board at Clemson University, another institution with agricultural roots.

Meantime, the school lost its accreditation, a blow to its credibility. The state inspector general investigated and found staff bypassed proper purchasing rules. Despite the school’s failures, the agency head scored an $800 bonus “contrary with state law,” the inspector general reported, adding: "Not a healthy work environment." 

Something needed to change.

A new school

In 2017, the school’s board of trustees sought a consultant to come up with options. With the school’s reputation in tatters, Student-Centered Education Consulting Group was the only bidder.

Student-Centered Education describes itself as a “team of veteran, experienced, highly successful South Carolina superintendents, district and school-level administrators.” It’s led by Jimmy Littlefield, a retired school superintendent from Spartanburg, and Gerald Moore, a former principal of two Upstate high schools:  Dorman and Boiling Springs. In the background, Frank Dorn, the school’s director of agriculture, began identifying a list of new trustees to give to the governor.

Dorn was born in neighboring Edgefield County and could trace his family’s roots to 1765, before de la Howe arrived. Dorn landed a job at the school in 2015, after his farm and hardware business in Saluda went under during the 2008-10 recession. He’d filed for federal bankruptcy protection then. And he’d also been charged with writing a fraudulent check worth more than $1,000, a misdemeanor that was dismissed after he paid restitution, records show. Dorn said an employee wrote the check, and "I corrected it through the proper channels."

“We cannot forget the work done by Frank Dorn,” said Moore, the consultant, in an email last year to a school official.

Moore wrote that Dorn helped them create the school’s plan and reconstitute the board. One of the new trustee candidates was Hugh Bland, also from Edgefield. Bland had built an agriculture program at Piedmont Technical College in Greenwood. Without Bland and the other new appointees, Moore wrote in the email, “the same questionable bunch of do-nothings would still be there.”

In late 2017, Student-Centered Education issued its findings. One option was to close the school. But the preferred path was to create a boarding school that focused on agricultural studies. “This is our last hurrah,” board member Tom Love said during a board meeting at the time, The Index-Journal of Greenwood reported then. “We’ve got to make it work.”

It was a bold idea, one that marked a return to the school’s past as an operating farm. It was a nod to de la Howe’s wishes in his will to leave behind an “agricultural seminary” for children. And it reflected an often-overlooked fact about South Carolina: Agriculture is a $46.2 billion industry, the state’s largest economic sector.

State lawmakers jumped on board. To add luster, they agreed to make it a governor’s school, a high bar.

The two governor's schools were the state's educational gems. The arts and humanities school is in downtown Greenville, overlooking a waterfall. The math and science school is in Hartsville and looks like a small college campus. Highly selective, their programs are similar to elite boarding schools. Students' average SAT scores consistently ranked among the five highest in the state. 

Student-Centered Education said the state should also set high expectations for the new John de la Howe school. If successful, it would be the only agriculture-based boarding school in the nation.

And to make all this happen, in May 2018, the school’s board of trustees fired the school’s president and hired a new one: Sharon Wall.

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Notes for students at the John De La Howe school for agriculture on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

***

Wall also is from Edgefield and is an experienced and well-connected education leader. She had chaired the South Carolina Board of Education, the panel that sets policies for the state’s public elementary, middle and high schools. She’d held superintendent or interim superintendent positions in Edgefield, Abbeville and Greenwood counties.

“When I first rode around campus, I thought, ‘I just don’t want to do this,’ ” she said in a recent interview.

Restoring the school's buildings and creating a new academic program "was going to be a huge undertaking." She agreed to take the job as an interim president. But she had second thoughts as she learned more about staffing levels and building conditions.

“We had something like 56 employees and just one student, and that one had already been assigned to a group home in Aiken. I actually never met that kid.”

She laid off 34 employees and shifted the savings into campus renovations. “We didn’t need any teachers because we didn’t have any students, so we put all that money into trying to get the buildings back so we could actually have students.”

The school had 72 buildings on its sprawling campus, ranging from residential cottages to the imposing John de la Howe administration building, a two-story brick structure built in the mid-1930s. 

To supervise much of this work, Wall hired two politicians from her hometown.

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Stains and caved-in ceilings mar the auditorium at the John De La Howe campus on Wednesday, April 14, 2021 in rural McCormick County. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Edgefield, Edgefield, Edgefield

Edgefield County, population 27,000, has a rich history, known for its peaches, politicians and scandals. “Old Edgefield again! Another murder in Edgefield!” one writer wrote in 1816 after a woman named Becky Cotton murdered her husband, earning her the moniker “Devil in Petticoats.”

Edgefield’s other notable denizens included Preston Brooks, a U.S. congressman who in 1856 caned a fellow lawmaker over an anti-slavery speech. And “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, a governor in the 1890s, a senator thereafter, and a vicious white supremacist who also helped establish Clemson University. And, more recently, Strom Thurmond, a foe of integration and a U.S. senator for more than 47 years.

The John de la Howe campus is 35 miles north of Edgefield in neighboring McCormick County, but the school increasingly had an Edgefield flavor.

With Wall as president, Dorn as head of agriculture and Bland as board chair — all from the Edgefield area — the school hired Ken Durham, the mayor of Edgefield, to oversee construction and maintenance.

Wall also hired Scott Mims to be Durham’s second-in-command. Mims served on Edgefield Town Council with Durham.

Soon, the John de la Howe campus had contractors with Edgefield connections, as well.

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Construction workers Marcus McWhorter and Keith Hartwell cut flooring for the McCormick school building at the SC Governor's School for Agriculture at John De La Howe on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

‘Here we go’

There was no shortage of work. The residential cottages needed new roofs and electrical and plumbing upgrades. The administration building leaked. Roads were chewed up. On one of his first days, Durham gathered his staff.

He told them he’d worked at the Savannah River Site, the National Wild Turkey Federation and once ran a construction company in Edgefield, according to three former employees who were present. Durham also told them he was a longtime friend of Wall, the new interim president. He reportedly said that he planned to work at the school for only three years and that he hoped his time would boost his retirement nest egg, said Frank Walker and Richard Lewis, two employees in the meeting who recently retired.

Lewis thought Durham’s comments were “another example of people getting their friends jobs.”

When asked recently about that meeting and the employees’ recollections, Durham said, “Here we go,” then stood up and yelled, “Hell no!” He apologized and then said, “When I came in I had a handful,” explaining that he found his staff resistant to change and not up to the challenges of rebuilding the campus. “I came to open this school, and I did.”

Lewis had been in charge of maintenance before Durham’s arrival. He’d retired from the Highway Patrol in 2007 after 25 years, finishing his tenure as a first sergeant and post commander of Edgefield, McCormick and Saluda counties. He’d taken a job at John de la Howe in 2008 and later trained as a heating and air-conditioning technician. He said he soon grew frustrated with Wall’s and Durham’s management.

He felt many decisions were wasteful and violated accepted purchasing practices. On several occasions, contractors approached him with bid quotes and asked him to give them to Durham and Mims. No, Lewis said he told them, you have to send them directly to the procurement office.

Emails reviewed by The Post and Courier showed at least one contractor sent a bid directly to Mims, who forwarded it to the procurement officer.

In fact, state purchasing rules generally require contractors to submit sealed bids for projects worth more than $10,000. Bids are supposed to go directly to the procurement offices. And agency officials are barred from circulating the quotes before the bid-opening day. The process is designed to prevent kickbacks, bribery and other illegal attempts to favor one contractor over another.

Lewis and Durham agree on one thing: Tensions grew throughout 2019 and 2020 as longtime staffers and the new managers butted heads. Lewis, Walker and other current and former employees watched as more contractors with Edgefield connections landed work, including a contractor who lived across the road from Wall.

Then, last year, Lewis said he noticed a truck he’d seen before. He pulled out his phone and began to shoot a video.

Screenshot of paving crew at John de la Howe School taken by Richard Lewis in 2020

Screenshot of paving crew at John de la Howe school taken by Richard Lewis in 2020. Provided

Paving the way

Scott Mims has a full plate.

In addition to his $70,674 job assisting Durham to rebuild the campus, he sits on Edgefield Town Council with Durham. He volunteers at the Edgefield Fire Department. And he also has several Edgefield-area businesses, including Edgefield Asphalt & Concrete, All-Star Cleaning Services and the Edgefield Pool Room restaurant, records show.

He works closely with Shannon Philpott, a council member for the nearby town of Trenton. Their social media pages show them running the Edgefield Pool Room together, along with a business that cleans up the messes made when chicken trucks wreck and spill their contents on local highways.

In 2020, the school sought bids to demolish and repave campus sidewalks. A company called Faith Construction had low bids: $33,000 for the demolition and $37,000 for the paving. Shannon Philpott was listed as owner on both quotes.

Faith Construction’s paper trail is thin. The South Carolina secretary of state has no record of it, and there’s no licensed contractor by that name, even though state procurement rules generally require commercial contractors’ licenses for jobs more than $5,000. A company called Faith Remodeling 2 Construction is, however, on the state’s list of approved vendors, with Philpott as the owner.

Philpott did not respond to requests for comment.

Last summer, Lewis said he watched the sidewalk paving crews at work. He spotted Mims and Durham on the job site, as well as a truck he recognized, a heavy-duty pickup with dual tires in the rear. He'd seen it used by Mims’ Edgefield Asphalt & Concrete company.

His mind moved back to his years in law enforcement. He was concerned about a possible ethical breach and began shooting video from his phone, images he shared with The Post and Courier.

“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," he said.

South Carolina’s ethics laws say that no public official or employee may knowingly use his or her office to “obtain an economic interest for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated.”

Mims did not respond to requests for comment.

Asked about the bids, Durham said he phoned Mims, who told him this: On the bid for the demolition, Faith Construction and another contractor had the same quote: $33,000. Mims wanted the contract to go to the other bidder, but procurement officials told him to go with the first one in, which was Faith's. 

“I don’t think we did anything illegal,” Durham said.

Revolving door?

Sharon Wall said she’d planned originally to be at the school for six months but was still there two years later, earning about $121,000 her last year, including expenses for mileage, records show. She continued to work closely with the consultant, Student-Centered Education. After doing its initial report in 2017 on the school's future, it landed a lucrative contract to help administrators hire staff and craft a new curriculum.

It was an arrangement that also landed Wall in hot water.

Wall hadn’t put the new contract out for bids as required by the state’s purchasing laws, John White, the state’s chief procurement officer, wrote in a letter to the school on April 18, 2019.

After negotiations with school leaders, White OK’d the contract anyway. White also ordered Wall to take an “Introduction to the South Carolina Procurement Code training class as soon as possible,” he wrote in his letter.

In an interview, Wall said she didn’t know about the training requirement and never took the class.

Student-Centered Education charged $1,500 a day per consultant, money that added up when two or more attended board meetings at the school. So far, the school has paid the company at least $477,400, records show.

In late 2019, the school's board of trustees gave Wall the authority to negotiate another contract for Student-Centered Education. And even as late as April 2020, she worked with staff to make sure Student-Centered Education was the school's consultant, an email showed. But her two years as interim president were coming to an end. She’d found a replacement, Tim Keown.

Keown had joined the school in 2019, responsible for recruiting students and helping with the creation of a new agriculture curriculum. He'd known Wall for years, the Index-Journal reported then. He'd earned a Master’s degree in agriculture education from Clemson, and taught at two high schools before taking an agriculture education position at Clemson.

In July 2020, Wall handed him the reins.

And then she began working with Student-Centered Education, earning that $1,500-per-day fee. 

State law generally prohibits public officials from quitting and immediately taking new jobs with companies that work for their old agencies. The law calls for a one-year "cooling off" period before that prohibition ends.

Common in federal and state government circles, these laws are sometimes called “revolving door” statutes. Their intent is, as one federal judge wrote, to stop the “nagging and persistent conflicting interests of the government official who has his eye cocked toward subsequent private employment.”

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Timothy Keown (left) and Sharon Wall sit in the President’s House on the John de la Howe campus on April 14, 2021, near McCormick. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

'I do plead ignorance'

Sitting for interviews in a school conference room, Wall and Keown struggled at times with questions about the consulting work. Wall said that the board of trustees approved her work with Student-Centered Education, and that her attorney had told her she was on firm ethical ground. At one point in the interview, she left the room to call her attorney.

When she returned, she said: “If I thought this was wrong, I wouldn’t have done it. I’ve got a sterling reputation in the past. If I didn’t know something, I just didn’t know it. I do plead ignorance. I follow the rules. I really did not know.”

Keown also didn’t see any ethical conflicts. Asked if he thought it would create a negative perception if he quit and immediately went to work for the school’s consultant, he said: “It would not be to me. But I’m not a politician. I’m a school guy who cares for kids.”

Gerald Moore, the consultant, also didn’t see a conflict in hiring Wall. In an email to the newspaper, he wrote that it was a “common practice” for retiring school superintendents to stay on “as a contractor to help in a transition period.”

And Hugh Bland, chair of the school’s board, said the board wanted Wall to continue helping the school after she left her state position.

“And we were encouraged by state representatives to keep her on for a while. We were not wasting money. She’s done a wonderful job.”

In the conference room interviews, Keown grew flushed at times. He defended Wall’s consulting work, saying the contract called for her to work as many as 80 days at $1,500 per day, but that she’d only worked 35 days so far, equivalent to $52,500. Her institutional knowledge was invaluable, he said.

“Her job is to hold my hand through the accreditation process.”

He said he was worried that negative publicity would harm the school’s progress.

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School leaders spent about $500,000 to build this entrance building and pave a road into the John de la Howe campus. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

***

This new governor's school faces many challenges. It has spent more than $5.1 million to fix cottages for students and staff, along with classrooms and other upgrades. It spent nearly $500,000 to build a guard station at the entrance and repave a campus road. Beyond the $5.1 million already spent, the school has identified an additional $14.1 million in other restoration and construction projects, budget requests show.

It’s unclear where that money will come from and when.

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Valeria Vazquez sets up her show rabbit for a class project in her Animal Science class at John De La Howe school for agriculture on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Though angry after being questioned about the school's construction and consulting work, Keown and Durham offered a tour, first to a cottage that hadn’t been used for years and had peeling paint on nearly every surface.

The imposing administration building had been renamed John de la Howe Hall. It had a new roof, but the auditorium’s ceiling had caved in. In a nearby room, a dead squirrel lay on a dank carpet. Keown said he expects the renovation of John de la Howe Hall alone will cost at least $6.6 million.

But conditions were different at two newly restored cottages for students. With their tall ceilings, freshly painted walls and newly sanded hardwood floors, the rooms felt spacious and airy.

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Students work on a tractor for an equipment maintenance class at the SC Governor's School for Agriculture at John De La Howe school on Wednesday, April 14, 2021 in McCormick County. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The school has roughly 40 students from across the state, Georgia and North Carolina. Keown said he hopes someday to charge out-of-state tuition to bolster the school’s finances, similar to what Clemson and other state colleges do. In the fall, he expects about 75 students as coronavirus limitations end and the school renovates more cottages. The school's existing buildings could house 160 students. Keown said he'd love to have 280 students, similar to the state's two other governor's schools, but that would require a new dorm and even more money.

Scattered in small groups across the campus, students worked on a tractor engine and planted trees. They groomed a rabbit for a future 4-H presentation and studied in the library.

Around them, on this remote campus, in the place where John de la Howe and his mistress were buried roughly two centuries ago, amid the deteriorating old buildings and newly renovated ones, the questionable contracts and the anger, the school's grounds had the vibrant green of spring's new growth.

This old school's new era has the same potential — if the lessons of its past failures aren't forgotten.

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Teacher Hunter Mortin with his class on Environmental Research set out to plant trees on campus of SC Governor's School for Agriculture at John De La Howe on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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

Tony Bartelme, senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier, has earned national honors from the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb and National Press foundations and is a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Twitter: @tbartelme Signal: 843-412-2283.

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