Police: $35,000 missing from Richland 1 office; lawsuit filed by former manager

jmonk@thestate.comJune 9, 2014 

A secretary at Richland District 1 headquarters in Columbia made off with $35,000 in unauthorized overtime since 2008, according to a city police report obtained by The State.

The secretary, an employee for five years, is no longer with the district.

In a related matter, Donna Hammett, 64, the head of the department the secretary worked in, was forced to retire in May because of the matter and has filed a defamation lawsuit against Richland 1, according to her lawyer, J. Lewis Cromer, and records on file at the Richland County courthouse.

Hammett’s former department, the Office of Advanced Academic Programs, oversees advanced courses in the district. She was with the District 34 years.

“They have tried to blame her and scapegoat her for things that were not of her doing,” Cromer, a prominent employment lawyer in Columbia, said Monday.

“They’ve tried to give the impression that she might in some way be responsible for some of the missing money – and she was not. That is what this case is about,” Cromer said.

The district had no immediate comment on Hammett’s lawsuit. The Richland 1 school board is expected to discuss the matter at its meeting Tuesday night.

Up until now, the missing money had been kept secret by Richland 1.

However, according to the city police report obtained by The State, the district’s security director, Joe Fraley, met with police in March to discuss allegations that a secretary in Hammett’s office had been falsifying overtime records.

Fraley told police that the secretary “has been signing her supervisor’s (Donna Hammett) signature on her time sheet on a regular basis,” the report said.

Fraley told police that the secretary “has collected at least $35,000 in unauthorized overtime wages,” the report said. The unauthorized overtime took place from 2008 to March, the report said.

When confronted, the secretary confessed and signed statements “admitting to the forgery,” the police report said.

The secretary was “terminated by the school district” on March 20, according to the police report.

It was not known late Monday whether the secretary had been charged.

Hammett declined comment Monday, referring questions to her attorney.

School board chairman Aaron Bishop and vice chairman Vince Ford declined to discuss the case Monday, citing the police investigation.

But Bishop did confirm that Hammett is no longer with the district.

School district attorney Susan Williams said Monday she could not comment on individual employees.

Referring to Hammett’s lawsuit, Williams said in an email, “It is the practice of the district not to respond to questions regarding litigation matters.”

The district is waiting to get a full report from the Columbia Police Department, she said.

Hammett’s lawyer said the secretary kept forging Hammett’s name to pay documents in a “very clandestine way. When the school district caught up with her, it started its own investigation.”

At that time, Cromer said, Hammett cooperated with the investigation. “Our lady came in and gave honest statements and certainly exonorated herself in every way and helped them get a handle on things.”

Cromer said Hammett is “a very fine lady, and I intend to see that her reputation is cleared.”

According to public pay records, Hammett made $88,090 a year in 2012 in her post. The State could not confirm Monday what her salary was when she retired in May.

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