Update: R2 board member claims harassment

Bender: “Public officials have to expect feedback from constituents.”

COLUMBIA – Another spat involving a Richland Two board member and law enforcement is further fueling criticisms of elected officials already marred by mounting ethical and legal issues.

Columbia area resident Gus Philpott is identified as the subject in a harassment complaint he says Richland Two board member Teresa Holmes recently filed with the Richland County Sheriff’s Office.

In recent public meetings, Philpott has called for Holmes and board chair Amelia McKie to step down from their seats for failing to file Statements of Economic Interest, an ethics form required by state law.

South Carolina elected officials are required by law to file SEI forms before taking the oath of office. Violations are punishable by up to 30 days in jail or a $5,000 fine, according to the S.C. Code of Laws.

Instead, it was Philpott who recently found himself facing a potential legal entanglement.

“I was home Thursday afternoon around 3 o’clock when the phone rang,” Philpott said. “[A sergeant] called me from the sheriff’s department and he told me that he had a report about harassment that had my name in it.”

Philpott met deputies at the sheriff’s office. After hearing Philpott’s side, deputies told him that he didn’t commit harassment, Philpott said, and was not charged.

Holmes declined to comment when asked why she filed the report.

“When there are legal issues or potential pending further legal issues or additional actions pending, I have been advised not to comment by my attorney,” Holmes said. “The public needs to know that I am in compliance with the State of South Carolina and I am not now or never have been in danger of going to jail nor facing a $5,000 fine as alleged.”

In a post on The Voice’s website, Philpott wrote: “While filing her Statement of Economic Interests on Dec. 4, 2018, did get her into good standing with the S.C. Ethics Commission, it did not validate the oath of office that she took on Nov. 13, 2018. She must now take the oath of office.”

In response to a request from The Voice for the police report that Holmes filed, the sheriff’s office provided a heavily redacted report that shielded virtually all information about the complainant and subject from view.

Asterisks fill the fields normally reserved for the complainant’s and subject’s name, phone number, age, gender and ethnicity.

Jay Bender, a media law attorney representing the S.C. Press Association, said there’s no legitimate reason to redact an elected official’s name from an incident report, especially when it’s the official who filed it.

“You don’t lose all of your rights when you become a public official, but you certainly lose the right to be anonymous,” Bender said. “You certainly lose the right to file a criminal complaint because you don’t like what someone is saying.”

Bender further said it’s “nonsense” for a public official to file a harassment report against a constituent attempting to discuss public policy matters.

“All he’s doing is calling on a public official to follow the law,” Bender said. “When you offer yourself for public office, you have to expect feedback from your constituents.”

Legal issues have haunted Richland Two board members since December 2018 when The Voice began investigating unfiled ethics reports by a majority of members.

Six of seven board members failed to file either quarterly campaign finance reports or SEI forms, public records state.

A Richland Two board member has also been criminally charged following an altercation that occurred shortly after the Jan. 22 board meeting adjourned.

Board vice chair Monica Elkins- Johnson has been charged with disorderly conduct. She remains free on bond and a trial date hasn’t been set.

Police reports state that the suspect was yelling, cursing and issuing threats. A sheriff’s office news release stated that Elkins-Johnson “did attack several individuals,” and cursed and threatened them.

At the March 12 board meeting, a week before the harassment report was filed, Holmes said she has  taken responsibility for not filing her SEI forms on time.

She went on to say she thinks board member ethics issues have become sensationalized.

“I’m not going to be one of those board members that sits by idly and accepts when things are done for personal reasons, or things are being done to be sensationalized,” she said. “I don’t like being used for personal reasons of other people.”

The harassment report states the incident occurred between March 11 and March 20. The report does not specify how anyone was harassed.

“C/V (School Board Member) came into the RCSD to report that a man that has approached her at several Richland County School Board meetings is harassing her,” the report states. “C/V said she feels threatened by subjects [sic] behavior.”

The report accuses Philpott of approaching the board member at meetings and also by sending her several emails that attack her.

Philpott said he’s personally spoken to Holmes only once at a board meeting and described the conversation as cordial. He noted he only emails the entire board, and not any member individually.

“If they are in a public place and at a public meeting, they have no expectation of privacy,” Philpott said.

Philpott said ethics compliance is important because board members handle heaps of taxpayer money. He also said their votes impact non-monetary matters, citing recent 4-3 board votes on student appeals.

At a meeting in February, the board also voted 4-3 against a proposed policy that would sanction board members when there’s “cause.” Holmes and McKie voted against the measure.

Philpott said those votes would’ve flipped the other way had the board followed state law by not allowing Holmes or McKie to serve for not filing 2018 SEI forms by the March 30 due date.

Neither filed their forms until December 2018, S.C. Ethics Commission records show.


R2 board member files harassment report with Sheriff’s office against Blythewood resident

COLUMBIA – A female member of the Richland Two school board has filed a harassment complaint against a private citizen who’s previously criticized board members for violating state ethics laws.

Blythewood area resident Gus Philpott said the Richland County Sheriff’s Office telephoned him last week to notify him of the complaint.

“I was home Thursday afternoon around 3 o’clock when the phone rang,” Philpott said. “[A sergeant] called me from the sheriff’s department and he told me that he had a report about harassment that had my name in it.”

Philpott said he went to the sheriff’s office, where he spoke with two deputies who asked him to give his side of the story. He said they later told him he didn’t commit harassment and he wasn’t charged.

All information about exactly who filed the report is hidden from the public in the report. Asterisks fill the fields normally reserved for the complainant’s name, phone number, age, gender and ethnicity.

Philpott believes Richland Two board member Teresa Holmes filed the report.

At previous board meetings, Philpott, among others, has called for Holmes and board chair Amelia McKie step down from the board for failing to file Statements of Economic Interest, an ethics form required by state law to be completed before a person elected to the school board can take office.

Jay Bender, a media law attorney representing the S.C. Press Association, said there’s no legitimate reason to redact an elected official’s name from an incident report.

He said it’s especially egregious when an elected official files a report against a constituent over political disagreements.

“You don’t lose all of your rights when you become a public official, but you certainly lose the right to be anonymous,” Bender said. “You certainly lose the right to file a criminal complaint because you don’t like what someone is saying.”

Holmes declined to comment when asked why she filed the report.

“When there are legal issues or potential pending further legal issues or additional actions pending; I have been advised not to comment by my attorney,” Holmes said.

3/26/19