The leader of the controversial nonprofit that dominates the state’s private school-choice program says state tax auditors made sexual comments about her in emails, joking about how a staffer wanted to see her again.
A S.C. Department of Revenue spokeswoman called the emails “careless and unprofessional” but would not say whether the employees involved were disciplined.
The Revenue Department, which reports directly to Gov. Nikki Haley, “is in the customer service business,” said Haley press secretary Chaney Adams, adding the agency is “taking the appropriate steps to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
The Revenue Department employees involved in the email exchange were auditing Olga Lisinska; her Mount Pleasant nonprofit, Palmetto Kids First Scholarship Program; and Jeff Davis, Lisinska’s husband.
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In the Nov. 13 emails, Revenue Department employee Ricky Taylor, a $96,360-a-year program manager, asked three employees who he supervises how they should deliver an audit notice to Lisinska and Palmetto Kids First.
In the exchange that followed, two of the employees referred to the third Revenue Department employee on the email messages, saying he would like to see Lisinska again. The State is withholding that employee’s name because he did not take part in the email exchange.
In response to her supervisor Taylor, Revenue staffer Tamara Wiggins said, “We usually hand deliver them (audit notices) to an office but PFK (Palmetto Kids First) doesn’t have one, they work from home. Maybe we can have Ms. Lisinska come in or send it certified ... ?”
Taylor then responded, “I bet (the third Revenue staffer copied on the emails) wants to meet with her again.”
“Ha-ha ... sure he does,” responded Wiggins, who is paid in the $42,000-to $46,000-a-year range.
Revenue staffer Marshall Smith, who makes $65,191 a year, then replied: “May I suggest we send a copy to their mailing address via certified mail, return receipt requested AND ask Olga Lisinska to come to the office so (the unnamed Revenue staffer), ahem, I mean, one of you can serve the summons on her?”
Lisinska said the emails cast into doubt whether she or Palmetto Kids will be treated fairly by the state’s tax agency. She also said she feels uncomfortable going to the tax agency to discuss her audits.
The emails “sexually objectified” his wife, said Davis.
“I don’t want to run into Ricky Taylor,” Lisinska said. “What else was said behind closed doors? That is a big unknown.”
“The department takes these accusations very seriously, and we have taken action to address this situation swiftly and appropriately,” Revenue Department spokeswoman Ashley Thomas said. “We expect all our public servants to conduct themselves in a professional manner and hold them accountable for such.”
Thomas said the “make-up” of the Revenue team that will finish the audits of Lisinska, her husband and Palmetto Kids First has been changed. But she would not say how, citing personnel matters.
Revenue director Rick Reames, who declined to comment directly, has ordered an “independent review of the audit” by a private, outside firm “to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the results are not compromised,” Thomas said.
Efforts to reach the individual Revenue staffers in the email exchange were unsuccessful. But Thomas said the employees know about The State’s inquiry into the emails.
Revenue supervisor Taylor is out of his office for an undisclosed period of time, according to a message on his agency’s phone and email.
A history of conflict
Lisinska and Davis obtained the Revenue emails through a public records request. The agency confirmed their accuracy.
Lisinska and Davis say they have been targeted politically by the state since they launched their nonprofit, which raises money to help pay for children with disabilities to attend private school. The ongoing audits — of Palmetto Kids First and the couple — are examples of how they are being mistreated, they say.
For example, in November and December emails, a state auditor asked if Revenue should close the personal income-tax audits of Lisinska and Davis, saying no hidden income had been found. Taylor, the supervisor, said to wait until the agency received additional information.
The Revenue Department said keeping related audits open is common. “When a principal and an organization are under review, it is standard audit practice to not close one before the other,” spokeswoman Thomas said.
The agency also said Davis’ financial and professional history compelled it to conduct the audit.
After he filed for bankruptcy, Davis was sued over a failed investment deal. That suit accused Davis of failing to inform investors that they were liable for a $5 million loan. The Revenue review also came after The State reported some private-school parents said they were being pressured to make donations to Palmetto Kids First.
Palmetto Kids First has been the most active nonprofit in the state’s private-school grant program, raising nearly $12 million to make tuition grants to about 1,300 children.
Taxpayers who donate to the nonprofits can claim a tax credit to reduce the state taxes that they owe by up to 60 percent. The state has offered up to $8 million in credits in each of the last two fiscal years.
The nonprofits can be lucrative. State law allows the nonprofits to set aside 5 percent of the donations that they collect for management fees, or about $600,000 for the first two years of operation by Palmetto Kids First.
But state law bars the nonprofits from attempting to entice donors by promising them that their children will receive scholarships in return for their donations.
In court documents, the Revenue Department said its review of Palmetto Kids First was driven by complaints the nonprofit was offering quid-pro-quo arrangements to donors — donate and, in return, receive a tuition grant and tax credit.
Lisinska and Davis have denied that accusation, saying only 3 percent of Palmetto Kids First’s donors received tuition grants for their children.
Supporters also have defended the nonprofit, saying they never were promised anything in return for donating.
Palmetto Kids First sued the Revenue Department after it asked the nonprofit for the names of parents whose children received scholarships. However, a court ordered Palmetto Kids First to hand over the names, which it recently did.
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What is Palmetto Kids First?
▪ A Mount Pleasant-based nonprofit authorized to collect donations and give grants to help students with disabilities pay the cost of tuition to attend private schools
▪ The largest player in the state’s fledgling school-choice movement, having collected nearly $12 million from donors and distributed grants to about 1,300 students
▪ A key player in pushing the state to expand the temporary law that authorizes the private-school program; that law is up for debate in this month’s state budget negotiations