Winthrop president ordered ‘purge’ of email about hiring husband

adouglas@heraldonline.comJuly 5, 2014 

— After two Winthrop University trustees asked for details last month about her husband’s employment, then-President Jamie Comstock Williamson told a campus technology staff member to “purge” an email she wrote last August that initiated Larry Williamson’s hiring, the Board of Trustees chairwoman says.

Kathy Bigham and vice chairman Karl Folkens met with Jamie Williamson on June 9 to discuss Larry Williamson’s employment “and how it came about,” Bigham told The (Rock Hill) Herald late Friday. The meeting came several days after The Herald asked questions about Larry Williamson’s employment.

After the 1.5-hour meeting, Jamie Williamson said she would provide the board members “information as to how her husband first came to be hired,” Bigham said. Nearly an hour later, Bigham said, Williamson sent the trustees an August 2013 email from senior staffer Kimberly Faust that discusses Larry Williamson’s hiring.

But Jamie Williamson did not provide an Aug. 3, 2013 email she wrote to Faust, according to Bigham. In that email, obtained by The Herald, Williamson wrote: “In your role as chief of staff, I want to work with you to create a new temporary (I think that is the correct word) staff position for Larry.” Williamson suggested in the email that her husband be paid $30,000 per year – an amount she characterized as “low enough not to attract critics.”

Instead of sending that email to the trustees, Williamson “telephoned a senior technology staff person and directed him to purge the Aug. 3 email from the president’s account and Dr. Faust’s account,” Bigham said. The directive came just two minutes after the other email was sent to the board members, she said.

Williamson rescinded the order after the staffer reported the Aug. 3 email had already been forwarded to at least one account outside of Winthrop, Bigham said.

When asked for comment on Saturday, Williamson’s attorney, Bev Carroll, responded by email that “I have no intention of responding to these additional allegations because we have not been provided any of this information or any documentation in the possession of the board.”

On June 13, the Winthrop board voted to suspend Williamson and gave notice of its intentions to fire her. In a termination notice letter written that day to Williamson, trustees allege that the president “directed a university employee to destroy university records (or) property” and “directed a university employee to make a hire in violation of the S.C. Ethics Act” and Winthrop’s nepotism policy.

The board voted to fire Williamson on June 26.

Through her attorney, Jamie Williamson has refuted all the trustees’ claims against her.

Bigham, in her statement to The Herald on Friday night, said she and Folkens initiated the June 9 meeting to “review a number of concerns, including questions which had arisen regarding what the president had told trustees about the manner in which her husband was hired and the conclusion date of his temporary position.”

The board’s executive committee had been told about Larry Williamson’s part-time, temporary employment in Winthrop’s president’s office about one month after he was hired on Sept. 1, 2013, Folkens said. At that time, board members were not aware of the president’s Aug. 3 email to her chief of staff that initiated her husband’s hiring, nor were they told that Winthrop’s human resources officer had raised concerns about nepotism, Folkens said.

Instead, the president told trustees that human resources had “cleared” the hire, Folkens said. And, the president told the trustees then “that her chief of staff was the impetus behind his being hired ... Trustees were assured by (the president) the hire was done in a proper manner,” Bigham said.

Jamie Williamson wrote in the Aug. 3 email that as “senior counsel for strategic initiatives,” Larry Williamson should earn “some nominal salary associated with the position to make it legit.”

Five days later, Faust wrote to the president that “We have an opportunity to hire a senior counsel for strategic initiatives, highly qualified and willing to work for a pittance.” The email from Faust does not name Larry Williamson or identify the job candidate as the president’s husband.

That Aug .8 email is the one Jamie Williamson provided to the board last month.

Records show that Jamie Williamson responded to the email by copying Larry Williamson and asking Faust to add “‘Other duties as assigned’ to the list of responsibilities.”

South Carolina’s ethics law says no state employee may “cause the employment, appointment, promotion, transfer or advancement of a family member to a position in which the public employee supervises or manages.”

Larry Williamson was employed for nine months, through May 31. He was paid $27,000, but the Williamsons returned the money.

Emails question police chief’s raise, job offer

Winthrop trustees found at least one other example “where emails were directed to be purged,” Bigham said on Friday. “The emails were purged but successfully recovered as part of our investigation.”

On Friday, Winthrop complied with a Freedom of Information Act request from The Herald for some of the president’s emails from May 1 to 12. A reference to deleting emails is found in the documents, during a discussion about a 33 percent pay raise given to Winthrop Police Chief Frank Zebedis earlier this year.

One series of emails discusses whether Zebedis had a formal job offer from another school before his salary was increased. The emails began on the morning of May 4 when the president writes that she is “under considerable pressure to ‘justify’” Zebedis’ pay raise, which amounted to a $27,442 hike.

Frank Ardaiolo, Winthrop’s vice president for student life, wrote later that day to Williamson that Zebedis “never had a hard offer ... (Zebedis) was led to believe the interview process was a formality.”

Williamson replied that “I have been operating under the impression that ... you told me that (Zebedis) had an offer from Mississippi State.”

In a later email on May4, Jamie Williamson tells a staff member that “we need to delete all of these emails on this topic ... Then we are going to ask James to go in and delete them.”

That email was sent to Cowart.

Other than mentioning “James,” the May 4 email does not specify the employee the president intended to ask to further delete emails. Trustees also have not identified which employee they say Jamie Williamson asked to “purge” emails on June 9.

In late May, when asked by The Herald, the president said retaining Zebedis in light of another school’s job offer was a contributing factor to Winthrop promoting him and her approving a salary increase.

Board members were told of Zebedis’ promotion and pay raise on April 24, Folkens told The Herald on Saturday. Williamson told Faust to send a memo to the board’s executive committee saying Zebedis’ pay raise was in part “based on a desire to retain a trusted and value employee” and that he had an offer from another college in Mississippi, Folkens said.

Under state law and the university’s policy at the time, the university’s Board of Trustees was not required to approve pay raises.

Among the trustees’ claims of “cause” to fire Williamson, they have accused her of misleading the board and the public “on the salary review process” she conducted for some Winthrop employees.

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