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Not by the book: SC governor's school circumvents own HR policies

John De La Howe.jpg (copy)

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

A single sheet of paper contains four typed statements — each signed by a different employee — detailing concerns about how Frank Dorn managed workers and handled animals at the state's fledgling governor's school.

But the page lacks context.

It doesn't explain who solicited these statements, why they were taken, whether the South Carolina Governor's School for Agriculture at John de la Howe sought Dorn's account of what happened or why they were placed in his personnel file. They aren't connected to any documented disciplinary action, which is the gold standard for when allegations make their way into such files for state employees.

What is clear from documents received from an open records request is that Dorn was moved from his post as director of agriculture earlier this year and made assistant director of facilities.

This page is not the only oddity in the file, which was released to the Index-Journal of Greenwood under a public records request. It also contained an unsigned 90-day corrective plan sent to human resources 47 days after enactment and an email expressing concerns that was printed months after it was written, but was then signed and dated for before the message was even sent.

In a review of these documents, the Index-Journal discovered instances when the school did not follow human resources guidelines detailed in its employee handbook and on the state Department of Administration's website. It's the latest finding of Uncovered, an investigative project led by The Post and Courier to ferret out questionable behavior among elected officials and public employees across South Carolina. The Index-Journal is one of 17 newspapers partnering with Charleston publication for the project.

In April, The Post and Courier revealed numerous cases of questionable spending and ethical practices, especially payments to contractors from Edgefield. The following month, the Index-Journal exposed how school leaders funneled hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to their contractors of choice. These stories led to reports from the state Office of Inspector General and Division of Procurement Services that detail a laundry list of violations.

Dorn is now suing the school. In a civil action filed Oct. 8 against the school, President Tim Keown and teacher Elizabeth "Libby" Templeton, Dorn alleges Keown defamed him, and that Keown and Templeton conspired to wreck his credibility.

Dorn, Keown and the school declined to comment on the lawsuit. Templeton did not respond to a request for comment.

Responding to a public records request, John de la Howe also gave Index-Journal a letter from the State Inspector General detailing an investigation into Templeton that cleared her of wrongdoing in purchasing allegations that Dorn mentioned in his lawsuit.

Director of Agriculture and Forestry Operations Frank Dorn observes his cows at the Governor's School for Agriculture campus in McCormick County (copy)

Frank Dorn, then-school director of agriculture and forestry operations, drops a load of hay off in a cow field on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, at the John de la Howe School in McCormick County. File/Anna B. Mitchell/Staff

No past complaints

Dorn started at John de la Howe in 2015 as a temporary worker before becoming a farm assistant, listing retired Edgefield County superintendent Sharon Wall among his references on his application for employment.

Then a crumbling boarding school for troubled youth that was at risk of closure, Dorn was a key player in finding John de la Howe's new direction as a school for agriculture. And after Wall became the school's interim leader in 2018, the third person to helm the school since Dorn's hiring, he was elevated to director of agricultural operations.

Before Keown became the school's president, Dorn’s personnel file shows no disciplinary action or documented complaints.

A single memo details friction between Dorn's department and another, with the document placing blame on the other department for "relaying misinformation." Recorded on John de la Howe School letterhead, the memo documents a meeting on Sept. 18, 2017 that included Dorn, the other department head, a mediator and two witnesses. It was written that day and it lays out a four-point plan for cooperation between the departments.

Wall filed an employee evaluation in June 2020, her last month as interim president. Dorn was "exceptional" in nearly every category, and Wall noted that Dorn "has been one of the main components to the revitalization of JDLH."

She did list in the evaluation one point she hoped Dorn would address: "Work on not taking things so personally — 'wearing your feelings on your sleeve.' We are all in this together!"

What about his emails?

Three emails Keown sent to Dorn on Feb. 26, 2020 are at the center of his lawsuit, and all are in his personnel file.

There is no explanation of who placed them in the file or why, but all bear Dorn's signature.

The first email from Keown, sent at 9:42 a.m. to Dorn and six others, went after Dorn's department for not taking care of fallen leaves or weeds in the sidewalk.

"The campus looks the worst since I've been here in July," he wrote in the email. "I was truly embarrassed by the comments from parents and board members last Friday. … At our next interview day of March 7, if the grounds look in the same poor condition as last Friday, we will need a serious discussion and implement an improvement plan for the grounds employees. I will not be embarrassed/ashamed again."

While the school had announced in December 2019 that Keown would be the next president, he was still director of the education center and months away from assuming the school's top role when he sent the emails.

In an email sent 13 minutes later to Dorn and Wall, Keown wrote: "I'm sending this to both of you to note that Frank invites himself to meetings that do no pertain to him. Frank, do not attend another meeting that I call that you are not invited to. Some meetings might be called to discuss personal matters that Frank does not need to be privy to. I'm not the only one that Frank does this to. It needs to stop now. Focus on the farm and grounds (your lane), not everyone else's business."

The third email, timestamped 2:27 p.m., lays into Dorn, noting that he's "confronting all of these issues now before July" when Keown becomes school president: "I have been told by multiple sources that you have went behind my back to co-workers and JDLH board members, calling me lazy, a drunk, telling untruths about my tailgate at Clemson (might better mind your own tailgate), other personal things that you have no clue about in my life. I've been told by the source themselves that you said those things about me. So, careful who you downgrade me to, I might just know them. … My best advice to you is, keep your front porch swept, I'll keep mine swept. Tend to the skeletons in your own closet before telling blatant lies about me. Make sure we are clear about that."

Tim Keown, president of the Governor's School of Agriculture at John de la Howe (copy)

Tim Keown, president of the Governor's School of Agriculture at John de la Howe. File/Staff

In the email, Keown blames Dorn for problems recruiting in Edgefield and Saluda counties, accuses him of being focused on other departments instead of his own, warns him that agriculture teachers will soon be calling the shots about farm operations and accuses Dorn of saying negative things about him and Principal Greg Thompson.

"If one of your direct employees tells me something about you in confidence," he wrote, "I will handle it through the HR process. No employee here should feel frightened to speak to me or Greg. Nor should they be intimidated by Frank Dorn."

Dorn's complaint singled out this email as "vitriolic."

If Wall agreed with Keown, she did not mention it in Dorn's review. And if she deemed the emails inappropriate, there is no indication of it in Keown's personnel file.

90-day plan

In a document titled "Employee Improvement Plan for Frank Dorn," Keown lays out a number of allegations he's heard about Dorn: The ag director used a pocket knife to prod cattle at the Saluda Auction barn, and he whipped hogs too hard, leaving bruises; Dorn shouts and curses at his employees; he takes over or crashes meetings and doesn't give agriculture teachers enough say in the farm.

It doesn't say who reported these allegations, how they were investigated or whether Dorn offered a different account. The 90-day improvement plan also misses key components described in state human resources guidelines, including how Dorn should correct some of the problems raised or what happens to him should he not.

The document says the allegations and plan were discussed in a two-hour meeting on Feb. 3. The complaint in Dorn’s lawsuit calls the claims discussed at the meeting "false and exaggerated" and alleges many originated from Templeton.

The plan itself is undated, but it would have been written sometime between the meeting on Feb. 3 and Keown emailing it to human resources 47 days later on March 22 — the day Dorn says he was moved to a different position. Neither Dorn nor Keown signed the document. Both should have signed, according to the school's Employee Handbook and HR guidance from the state.

Dorn's complaint alleges he has not seen the plan. It says Dorn filed a letter to his personnel file challenging the allegations. One scanned image in the personnel file shows a sealed envelope dated Feb. 5 in the file with Dorn's signature over the flap. It appears to remain unopened.

Employee complaints

Two pages in Dorn's personnel file document concerns from employees.

One seems to document something that happened on March 19. Dorn said in his complaint that he "disciplined his staff for not working" and reported what happened to Keown.

According to the page in Dorn’s personnel file, his employees said he blasted three of them because they were all working on one job and used threatening language toward them. Beyond that occurrence, the workers described Dorn as being ill-tempered, too rough with animals and difficult to work for. A statement attributed to one employee said Dorn "is not well planned and stresses everyone out."

Typed statements from each of his four workers appear together on a single page, with each signing next to their statement.

There is no documentation about why the statements were gathered or who gathered them. Complaints typically only end up in personnel files when an agency verifies allegations and takes disciplinary action against an employee. If Dorn was disciplined, there is no documentation of it in the personnel file.

The employee handbook requires documentation of even verbal warnings, with the employee and supervisor both signing to acknowledge it happened. It also gives employees the right to make an additional response to such matters. No such response appears in the file.

Separately, an email from one of Dorn’s workers reports that Dorn had problems keeping his anger in check.

Part of the email, including the date, is cut off from the printout, but it references the day it was sent as "July 31." After it was printed on April 1, it was signed by the employee and dated July 15, 2020 — or 260 days before it was printed.

This, too, was not connected to any documentation of an investigation or disciplinary action. There is no indication anyone got Dorn's account or spoke to him about it. It is unclear why it was included.

The Index-Journal noted some of the issues in the personnel file to John de la Howe in an email. The school did not respond.

The newspaper also sought comment from Dorn about the litigation and the complaints from employees in his personnel file. In an emailed response, he declined to comment on the lawsuit.

"But if my file has complaints, they are ones that I have never seen," he wrote. "I signed all the paperwork in my file on March 22nd and they were not in there then. My understanding is that any formal complaints have to be shared with the employee and signed for acknowledgement of receiving."

Neither page documenting employee complaints contains Dorn's signature.

Change in position

Dorn was told March 22 that his workers were afraid of him and he was being removed from his position, according to the complaint in his lawsuit. That meeting was not recorded in his personnel file.

Emails released under an earlier public records request verify that Facilities Director Ken Durham began supervising Dorn in late March and that his responsibilities had changed. Documents in the personnel file, however, indicate the change wasn't formalized until later.

It wasn't until April 17 that Durham became Dorn's supervisor, with approval for the change in title to assistant director of facilities coming two months later, according to that documentation. And the school pointed to a reorganization, not disciplinary action, as the reason for Dorn's reassignment.

Dorn's salary, currently $62,102, did not change.

State HR regulations and the agency's employee handbook both say if an employee's pay doesn't change, the move isn't a demotion and can't be challenged through the grievance process.

Purchasing probe

Along with personnel files requested months earlier, John de la Howe also released a letter from State Inspector General Brian Lamkin with the results of an investigation by his office that cleared Templeton of allegations of wrongdoing surrounding purchases from a company where her husband worked. Those allegations were mentioned in Dorn’s complaint. Unlike past Freedom of Information Act requests from the Index-Journal, which often have taken every moment allowed by law or more, the school released the letter detailing this investigation just one day after the newspaper requested it.

The investigation began in response to an anonymous complaint made April 28 — days after The Post and Courier published its first findings about the school.

The situation started in July 2020 when Templeton's husband, Wayne, sent her a quote of $42,292.80 for various agriculture-related items from Crouch Hardware and Farm Supply in Saluda, which is nearly an hour's drive from John de la Howe and had not previously done business with the governor's school.

That purchase did not move forward, but Templeton and two other employees made $24,712.56 in purchases across three orders from the store shortly after. The orders were dated Aug. 20, Aug. 27 and Oct. 1, all in 2020.

Lamkin's office reviewed purchases and found that while two of the purchases contained some of the items from the initial quote, a number of the items were different and the third order contained none of the items. Lamkin concluded in his letter these purchases likely weren't structured to avoid bid requirements.

Lamkin said his office also looked into whether involvement of Libby and Wayne Templeton in some of the purchases was unethical. Because Wayne Templeton was an hourly employee who did not receive a commission and was only tangentially involved in the process, Lamkin wrote in his letter that the situation did not violate ethics laws governing conflicts of interest.

In response to an emailed request for comment, Dorn wrote: "As far as the SIG report I do feel that they were never given the whole story. As we have already seen, dividing purchases to fall under certain levels is illegal."

Nothing of note

Durham, who listed among his job references state Sen. Shane Massey of Edgefield and state Rep. Bill Clyburn of Aiken, has only one performance-related document in his personnel file: a glowing review from Wall.

She rated his performance as "exceptional" in task after task in a review dated May 6, 2020, writing that "Ken has been a savior to the physical needs of the JDLH campus."

Durham's department was at the center of a procurement audit that determined de la Howe violated purchasing law for $1.5 million in contracts, in part to circumvent the school's spending authority and to award work to preferred vendors. On Sept., Durham told the agency's board, "Did I make a mistake? Hell yes."

None of this was noted in his personnel file.

There was also no documentation of concerns that at least two lawmakers shared with Keown about how Durham managed his department. The file also had no reference to the tensions within the department that The Post and Courier documented earlier this year.

Scott Mims, Durham's No. 2 in facilities, was also heavily involved in procurement for the department. There were also concerns raised, both in reporting for Uncovered and in an inspector general report, about his relationship with a contractor who was awarded $70,000 in work. None of this is noted in Mims’ file. He does, however, have a positive performance review from Wall.

The Index-Journal noted these omissions to Keown and offered him a chance to explain. He did not respond to that email, but did reply to a request for comment about the lawsuits.

"As you know, I can’t comment on the current litigation," he wrote. "My main focus every day are our amazing students. Every decision I make could/will eventually affect our student body. That is a task I do not take lightly. I will always make decisions with the mindset of: 'will this decision positively or negatively affect our students?'

"I pray daily that our students are not ever negatively affected by adult decisions. I refuse to allow negativity to be to be cultivated here. Our campus is full of excitement and positivity."

Contact Index-Journal Managing Editor Matthew Hensley at 864-943-2529 or on Twitter @IJMattHensley.

Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556. Follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.

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