Does ousted Lexington-Richland 5 board member owe $10 million? A jury could decide

Kim Murphy of Chapin speaks at a school board meeting.-03
Kim Murphy of Chapin speaks at a school board meeting.-03

Former Lexington-Richland 5 board member Kim Murphy could soon be heading back to court to fight a legal claim by the district that she owes more than $10 million for improperly delaying an expansion of Chapin High School.

The case entered mediation last week but has not been settled, according to John Reagle, an attorney for the school district. Murphy’s attorney, Paul Porter, said he could not comment but said the case is “still active.”

A judge had set Feb. 1 as the deadline for the district and Murphy to reach a settlement and avoid a trial. Reagle said the two parties could “reconvene” for further mediation, but said he assumes they will to go to trial. A date for trial would be set by March 1, but the trial would not start before May 1, according to court documents.

The dispute, one of several between Murphy and the district during the last decade, stems from an appeal she filed in circuit court in 2013 after the board voted to remove her from office. She was removed because fellow board members determined that while she was elected to one of the board’s Richland County seats, she actually lived in Lexington County.

The district filed a response to her appeal that said the board acted appropriately. The district also filed a counterclaim that said delays caused by Murphy had increased the cost of the Chapin High School construction by more than $10 million. The counterclaim asked the court to order Murphy to pay back the money.

Murphy lost the court battle over her removal. But the district’s counterclaim is unresolved.

Reagle said the dispute was “procedurally a complicated case” because of other legal action that unfolded in the interim. Murphy has been involved with several lawsuits with the district, individual board members and others connected to her ouster from the board in 2013.

Jay Bender, a leading media law attorney in South Carolina, represented Murphy in two previous cases involving the school district. Bender, who frequently represents The State, described the district’s attempt to get more than $10 million out of Murphy “for raising legitimate concerns” as “governmental bullying.”

“That strikes me as exactly the kind of abuse of citizens that the Bill of Rights was made to protect against,” he said.

Bender is not representing Murphy in this case.

Her disputes with the district began after voters approved several upgrades to Chapin High School in a 2008 bond referendum. The district said it would use some of the bond money to build a three-floor academic building at the high school, plus expand athletic facilities and add a parking lot. Plans called for filling 727 feet of a creek and a piece of wetlands near Chapin High School. Murphy said it would hurt the environment.

“I’m concerned about our ecosystem and water quality, but I’m also concerned about the practice of constructing sports fields in a wetlands area when there are sites on the Chapin High School parcel that are more suitable and much less costly to develop,” Murphy told The State in 2011.

The district said it followed the proper protocols and received approval from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control for the project. On July 13, 2010, Murphy filed a claim against DHEC over the permits.

A month later, she filed to run for a Richland County seat on the school board. In November 2010, she was elected to the board.

Later that year, a nonprofit was formed to sue Murphy for delaying the project and breaching her duties as a board member.

In March 2011, Murphy again filed a claim against DHEC, but this time in Administrative Law Court. She was appealing the department’s decision to issue a wastewater construction permit for Chapin High School. She was also involved in a case with another citizen, Margaret Stroud, who wanted an injunction to stop Murphy from challenging other district projects funded by the 2008 bond referendum.

By February 2012, relations amongst board members had soured so that at a public meeting, district officials outlined how Murphy had cost the Lexington-Richland 5 more than $12.4 million on its Chapin High project.

By the end of 2012, state surveyor Bobby Bowers determined Murphy’s property was in Lexington County, making her ineligible to represent Richland County.

In March 2013, an investigation determined Murphy lived in Lexington County, and the board voted to remove her from office. She then appealed the district. Several courts, including the S.C. Supreme Court, upheld the board’s decision to remove Murphy.

The district has said it determined that Murphy owed more than $10 million because:

The delays increased construction costs by $11.1 million.

$103,479 in expenses needed for “attending meetings and drafting alternative designs” for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

$611,654 in attorney’s fees.

$131,267 in architectural fees, among other listed items.

In legal filings, the district argues that Murphy tried to delay the Chapin High project to appease her political allies. She says she has always fought for the good of the students and families in the district — not for personal gain.

Murphy said Tuesday morning that she could not talk about the dispute.

Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.