Politics & Government

The curious case of a SC official’s $91K raise and why top lawmakers are mad about it

Commission on Higher Education chair Tim Hofferth
Commission on Higher Education chair Tim Hofferth

A top state agency employee who received a nearly $91,500 pay raise as interim director told S.C. lawmakers on Tuesday he had no knowledge of the raise and did not ask for it.

“I felt the need to speak to the committee at the first opportunity to clear my name,” Jeff Schilz, head of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, told the S.C. Senate Joint Education and Finance Study Committee on Tuesday.

“I came to this position because I saw a problem and it needed solving.”

Last Friday, state lawmakers caught wind that the Higher Education Commission bumped Shilz’s salary up from $166,280 to $257,767, news first reported by The Post and Courier of Charleston. Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence — arguably the state’s most powerful lawmaker — called the pay raise illegal, going as far to say Tim Hofferth, the commission’s board chair, should resign.

Meanwhile, S.C. House Ways and Means Committee Chair Brian White, R-Anderson, on Tuesday requested a full procurement audit dating back to July 1, 2016, of the state agency and its foundation.

Shilz has since returned the money, but state lawmakers say they want know how the raise was approved in the first place.

“Quite honestly, you shouldn’t have to be here,” state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, told Shilz. “I don’t know how many people, when you go to them and give them a 50 percent raise, wouldn’t take it.”

Instead, lawmakers said they want to question Hofferth, who, they say, recommended and approved Shilz’s raise without going through proper channels.

“It is bad judgment to increase the salary of a state employee by that amount,” state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, said on Tuesday. “Clearly, mistakes were made.”

But Hofferth has defended the raise, pointing to a 2017 memo from Leatherman, who chairs the S.C. Agency Head Salary Commission, which included an updated salary range for Shilz’s position.

Hofferth argues he was not ultimately responsible for approving Schilz’s pay increase.

Rather, Hofferth said, he recommended Schilz get near the top of the allowable range when he sent an email to the S.C. Department of Administration.

“I relied 100 percent on the letter I got from Sen. Leatherman,” Hofferth said on Tuesday. “If anybody deserved getting this at the highest range of the pay scale, it was Jeff,” who previously served on the College of Charleston’s board of trustees and has run the Commission on Higher Education for more than a year.

In another twist, an August email authored by Hofferth that was obtained by The State on Tuesday said the commission’s board voted unanimously on Shilz’s pay raise.

“Please ... slot the position at the [sic] $257,767 per year,” Hofferth wrote in the Aug. 24 email. “The commission voted unanimously on this initiative at our August meeting in executive session.”

Questioned about the email, Hofferth on Tuesday confirmed he wrote the email but said the email contained mistakes.

For starters, despite what he wrote, Hofferth said there was no vote taken in executive session — which would have been illegal under the S.C. public records law. Instead, he said, the board’s members recommended the salary increase during a consent agenda.

But any discussion of Schilz’s salary does not show up on the meeting agenda or its minutes.

Two Higher Education commissioners told lawmakers on Tuesday that they also did not remember voting on it.

“I did not vote on it and I was there,” said Jim Battle, a commissioner, who also sits on the board of trustees for the Medical University of South Carolina.

Though there was discussion about making Schilz executive director, “at no point do I remember any question about salary,” said Linda Dolny, who also sits on Lander University’s board of trustees.

State lawmakers on Tuesday said the drama over the raise has bruised the credibility of the state agency, which has aggressively pushed S.C. colleges and universities to cut tuition costs.

”This has etch-a-sketched all the good we’ve done in the last year and a half in higher ed ... starting all over now,” said state Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, who chairs the committee. “I just don’t see how CHE can walk into a college boardroom and try to show concerns about how they operate. You can’t say, do as I say, not as I do.”

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