R2 keeps ethics debate behind closed doors

Richland Two school board members, from left: Teresa Holmes, James Manning, Cheryl Caution-Parker, Monica Elkins-Johnson, Amelia McKie, Superintendent Dr. Barron Davis, Lindsey Agostini and James Shadd III. | Barbara Ball

COLUMBIA – Despite some members dismissing an ongoing ethics flap as merely a distraction at a meeting last week, the Richland Two school board spent 90 minutes behind closed doors Tuesday night discussing that topic.

At a special meeting, the board immediately retreated into executive session to receive “legal advice regarding Ethics Act issues.”

No action was taken after the executive session – some of which was audible in the hallway – and the board promptly voted to adjourn.

When pressed by The Voice about whether the executive session pertained to an individual member or the entire board, board chairwoman Amelia McKie wouldn’t say.

“I can’t clarify that any more than what was said in the motion,” McKie said.

Jay Bender, an attorney with the S.C. Press Association, of which The Voice is a member, said if the board discussed individual members’ ethics issues behind closed doors, the discussion would violate state law.

“I don’t see any legitimate reason to get advice unless it’s regarding other board members,” Bender said. “If it’s regarding board members with individual ethics problems, I don’t think they can discuss any punishments that may be meted out.”

During executive session some board member conversations were discernable in the hallway beyond the closed doors to the boardroom.

Those conversations seemed to focus on violations of individual board members, which Bender said is not permitted under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

The session appeared to become heated at times.

Board member James Manning, one of two sitting board members with no previously missing ethics forms, wouldn’t comment on the specifics of what was discussed.

“There was nothing to take action on. It was all just legal counsel,” Manning said.

Manning noted the issue of ethics is likely to arise at a future board meeting.

“I would keep an eye on the agenda,” he said.

That was difficult to do with Tuesday’s meeting agenda, which was buried among four unrelated press releases in an email titled, “Dear reporters and editors, please find attached four news releases from Richland Two…” with no mention of the agenda or the special called board meeting in the body of the email. The agenda also did not appear on the school’s board docs.

In recent weeks, several board members have come under scrutiny for failing to file various ethics forms required by state law.

Richland Two parent Rhonda Meisner called upon those board members to resign. At the Jan. 9 meeting, Meisner stated during public input that state law prohibits members from being sworn into office if they haven’t filed Statements of Economic Interest (SEI) forms.

In the 2018 election, board members James Shadd III, Cheryl Caution-Parker, Monica Elkins-Johnson, Teresa Holmes and McKie failed to file either SEI forms or quarterly campaign disclosure reports by deadlines set in state law, according to the State Ethics Commission.

Those board members have since filed their forms following a series of investigative reports by The Voice.

McKie, however, has garnered the most attention.

In July 2018, the ethics commission fined her $41,000 for failing to file multiple quarterly campaign reports between 2015 and 2018. Those forms were not filed until last week, the ethics commission website states.

The fine zoomed to $51,750 after McKie failed to pay the first $21,000 of the original $41,000 fine on Dec. 31, 2018.

In all, McKie filed 16 forms on Jan. 9, 2019, including her 2019 SEI form that isn’t due until March 30. Also on Jan. 9, she filed her first quarterly campaign report of 2019, which was due Jan. 10.

After the Jan. 8 board meeting, McKie said she planned to issue a press release addressing the ethics issues, but no statement had been released as of press time.

The status of McKie’s fine remained unclear, however, as the ethics commission, as of Tuesday, listed her outstanding debt at $41,000, the original fine amount, instead of the $51,750, according to the agency’s debtor’s list.

Barbara Ball contributed to this story.

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