SC school district subpoenaed in FBI investigation of school construction

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A note passed by Battery Creek High School Spanish teacher Fabian Jaimes and a student on Nov. 16, 2017 led to a criminal investigation into possible sexual misconduct. No charges were filed, according to the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office.

The Beaufort County School District has been subpoenaed in an FBI investigation related to construction of two Bluffton schools built during Superintendent Jeff Moss’ tenure and the architecture firm used in both projects, according to members of the Beaufort County Board of Education. The board voted at a work session Saturday to inform the public about the investigation, despite the district acknowledging it had not intended to do so.

The announcement comes just months before the board plans to ask residents of Beaufort County to vote in a $76 million bond referendum, aimed in part at alleviating overcrowding in Bluffton schools. The referendum includes $16.5 million for the expansion of May River High School and River Ridge Academy – the two schools mentioned in the subpoenas – which have come under fire for their increasing construction costs.

Board member John Dowling initiated public notice of the investigation by motioning for the board to publish a news release stating that “subpoenas have been received from the office of the U.S. Attorney in conjunction with an investigation by the federal government, and that the district will be cooperating fully with the investigation.”

The motion passed 6-3, with board members Geri Kinton, Cynthia Gregory-Smalls, Joseph Dunkle, JoAnn Orischak, Christina Gwozdz and Dowling voting in favor of going public, and board chairman Earl Campbell and board members Mary Cordray and Evva Anderson voting against. Board members David Striebinger and Bill Payne were not present for the vote.

“Our responsibility is not to protect the school board or the school district from the public that owns it,” Dowling said. “It’s to let the public know what’s going on.”

The board learned of the subpoenas on Jan. 16, according to Dowling, Gwozdz and Dunkle. They confirmed that investigators are requesting records related to the bidding process and construction of May River and River Ridge.

Dowling and Gwozdz also said the subpoenas are asking for information related to Hite Associates, a North Carolina-based architecture firm. The firm had not done design work for any South Carolina school district prior to the Bluffton projects, but had worked with Moss previously when he was superintendent in two North Carolina school districts, according to previous reporting by The Island Packet.

A rendering of River Ridge Academy Submitted

Moss said two school district employees were served with the subpoenas – Tonya Crosby, chief financial officer, and Robert Oetting, facilities, planning and construction officer.

About two hours after the work session adjourned Saturday, the board’s officers released a statement about the investigation:

“The District has been assured that it is not the target of the investigation, and is only being asked to produce information at this time ... The Board and the District will have no further comment at this time in order to protect the integrity of this investigation.”

When asked who assured the district that it is not the target of the investigation, district spokesman Jim Foster reiterated that the district would have no further comment at this time.

A rendering of May River High School Submitted

The May River and River Ridge projects have been criticized because they cost tens of millions of dollars more than initial estimates from Moss. May River went from the range of $35 million-$40 million to $68 million, and River Ridge went from $25 million to nearly $30 million.

Moss has long defended the cost of the schools, pointing to inflation, additional features not included in the original plans, unexpected challenges on site and expanded school size as reasons the projects’ budgets grew.

On Saturday, district officials appeared to be characterizing the federal subpoenas as routine by repeatedly citing the more than 100 subpoenas the district received in 2017 alone.

However, the bulk of those subpoenas were for student records, according to district lawyer Drew Davis.

Orischak asked Davis, who joined the district in 2014, how many federal subpoenas the district receives.

“It’s a rarity,” he said. “I have not seen any (federal subpoenas.)”

Moss said notifying the public of the federal government’s records request would be an unusual action by the district.

“We don’t inform the public of records that we’ve been subpoenaed for,” he said. “That’s just not been our normal course of what we do.”

Moss continued, “It doesn’t matter to me who’s asking for them. Anytime anyone asks for documents, we provide the documents. We don’t have anything to hide.”

The district denied The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette’s request to view the subpoenas at the district office Saturday, saying a state Freedom of Information Act request must be submitted. The law gives the district 10 business days to respond to a request and another 30 calendar days to supply the requested documents, but the district also has the authority to fulfill requests immediately.

Campbell, the board’s chairman, said the officers were not planning to make the investigation public, because they needed more information.

Asked what specific records were requested in the subpoenas, Campbell said, “That’s the reason I can’t get into this, because I may get sued.”

Board member Anderson said she voted against issuing a news release because it was unclear what the purpose of the investigation was. She said prematurely notifying the public could actually misinform them.

“There’s no way of telling what the subpoena is really about, and I feel like that it may be misleading to the public if you go by the names in the subpoena, and I’m not sure that we have the right to release it,” she said.

Two board members who typically vote with a majority that aligns itself with Moss, voted instead with those who are usually in the minority bloc.

“If we say we’re transparent, we’re transparent,” Gregory-Smalls said in explaining her vote. “And if we want the public to trust us then, hey, let’s do what we can to gain their trust.”

Kinton indicated that even though she did not agree with Dowling’s decision to make the motion, she voted in favor of releasing the information because the motion was for a release noting the district would cooperate fully with the investigation.

“Why would I vote not to do that?” she asked.

Gwozdz said she believes the public has a right to know about the investigation.

“Even though the subpoenas are for the FBI to gather information and we don’t know how the information will be used, it’s better to let the public know this is going on now,” she said.

Referring to members who voted in favor of the public disclosure, Dowling said, “We refuse to be placed in a position that, when news finally did get out, we would have to answer the question, ‘What did you know and when did you know it?’ 

Kelly Meyerhofer: 843-706-8136, @KellyMeyerhofer