State 125

USC’s James Holderman: From president to criminal

James Holderman
James Holderman File photo/AP

During many of his 13 years as the 25th president of the University of South Carolina, James B. Holderman was one of the most powerful men in South Carolina.

A master of spin and networking, the charismatic, confident Holderman from 1977 to 1990 used his position to make powerful allies in the state’s business, legal and political classes, convincing them he and he alone could bring grandeur to Columbia. Numerous luminaries, among them President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, visited USC, giving locals the impression Holderman’s influence knew no bounds. Holderman promised that by 2001, the name of USC would “roll off tongues” along with Harvard, Princeton and Yale. While president, he secured the beginnings of funding of what became the Swearingen Engineering Center and the Koger Center, Columbia’s premier performing arts center.

But Holderman’s charming facade concealed fatal flaws. Using secret taxpayer-funded accounts he controlled, Holderman bought and doled out millions of dollars in lavish gifts and favors for politicians and others, including secret scholarships for their children. Each year, Holderman took dozens of trips with student interns around the country and world. They stayed in $700-a-night hotels and dined at the finest restaurants. He gave his favorite interns bathrobes and little gold crosses he said had been blessed by an archbishop, then made sexual advances to his favorites.

From 1985-1990, Holderman’s excesses were revealed little by little by a few journalists from The Charlotte Observer, The Greenville News and the Associated Press. They wrote investigative stories and filed Freedom of Information lawsuits. Holderman and his allies attacked the journalists for wanting to “tear down the university.”

In 1990, beset by continued news stories, Holderman resigned and sunk into a life of bumbling white collar crime that eventually netted him prison sentences. Even while USC president, it turned out, he had been in a money-laundering scheme. In 1991, he pled guilty to income tax evasion for money he got through a university foundation. By 1992, the university had investigated and confirmed stories about Holderman’s sexual advances of students. The board of trustees stripped him of tenure. In 2003, after being arrested in an FBI sting where agents posed as Russian mobsters, Holderman received three years in prison for scheming to launder drug money and illegally get visas.