R2 trustee threatens to sue constituent

R2 board vice-chair Theresa Holmes, above, is threatening constituent with legal action.

COLUMBIA – A school board vice chair has threatened to sue a constituent over comments he made about her and another board member, according to a series of emails obtained by the Voice.

In four separate e-mails dated Sept. 3, Oct. 25, Nov. 9 and Nov. 23, Richland Two Board of Trustees Vice Chairman Teresa Holmes informed constituent Gus Philpott that she is considering a lawsuit against him.

Via email, she accused him of defamation, slander, and libel in relation to his often-repeated claim that she is not legally seated on the board. Holmes, who stated at a special called board meeting on Nov. 17 that she aspires to serve as the board’s next chairman, maintains that Philpott has been harassing her with false statements.

In her last email to Philpott, dated Nov. 23, Holmes set a date that she says she will be speaking with her attorney.

“Mr. Philpott, I have been more than patient and have excused your slanderous/liable [sic] behavior long enough. I will be speaking to my attorney on Monday and I am planning to take legal action against you. Enough is enough,” she wrote.

“You are well aware that what you are saying is not true which, the state of SC has given you in writing,” Holmes wrote. “Additionally, you have been asked several times to stop repeating slanderous statements. It’s unfortunate that your motives are seemingly racially motivated with a poor attempt to hide behind pretending that you are not a racist by using a beard / beards to cover your true intentions and hateful nature.”

The fracas with Holmes stems from Philpott claiming in the spring of 2019 that Holmes and fellow board member Amelia McKie were never sworn in to office in accordance to S.C. Code of Laws SECTION 8-13-1110(A). That law states:

“No public official…may take the oath of office or enter upon his official responsibilities unless he has filed a statement of economic interests in accordance with the provisions of this chapter with the appropriate supervisory office.”

Philpot says the fact that Holmes took the oath of office three weeks before she filed her Statement of Economic Interests with the S.C. Ethics Commission makes her illegally seated.

The remedy, Philpott says, is for both Holmes and McKie to take the oath of office again, which he says would satisfy the missed procedural requirements.

Philpott told The Voice that he was never notified by the state of SC that his claims were not true. In an email he sent to Holmes, Philpott stated: “Your statement ‘… and I am a legal board member who has paid a fine’ is false.

“Paying a fine to the S.C. Ethics Commission was for her violation of an ethics law,” Philpott told The Voice. “It did not cancel her violation of S.C. Code of Laws SECTION 8-13-1110(A).”

Philpott follows the school board closely and has taken issue with a variety of board policy and procedural concerns, at least one of which Superintendent Baron Davis recently acknowledged the district’s error and changed his proposed course of action. In this case, Philpott notified Davis that his proposed swearing in of a newly elected board member on Nov. 10, 2020, was not legal because the board member elect was not legally eligible, by statute, to be sworn in until Nov 13 – seven days after the Nov. 3 election was certified on Nov. 7. During the November 10 board meeting Supt. Davis acknowledged that the District had misinterpreted the statute about the beginning date of a new board member’s term-of-office and postponed the swearing in to the legally mandated date.

All this and more, Philpott reports regularly on a blog – “Richland 2 School District – unofficial blog.”

The criticism comes as the embattled board, which oversees the school district’s roughly $300 million annual budget and a $480+million bond issue, continues to deal with a number of controversies, including more than $50,000 in ethics fines owed by McKie over her failure to file required paperwork and a trip one board member took to jail following an altercation after a meeting.

Philpott says he’s not concerned about a potential lawsuit from Holmes.

“I am hopeful that her lawyer will explain the facts to her and advise her that she did violate S.C. Code of Laws Section 8-13-1110(A) by taking the oath of office three weeks before she filed her Statement of Economic Interests with the S.C. Ethics Commission,” Philpott wrote in an email. “And that she is illegally in office.”

If Holmes does file suit against Philpott, it would be the second action she has taken to quiet his complaints that she is illegally seated. Last spring, Philpott was identified as the subject in a harassment complaint he says Holmes filed with the Richland County Sheriff’s Office.

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

“You don’t lose all of your rights when you become a public official, but you certainly lose the right to file a criminal complaint because you don’t like what someone is saying,” Jay Bender, a media law attorney representing the S.C. Press Association, said of the harassment complaint.

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.”

Asked by email to comment on the potential lawsuit, Holmes replied with the following: “The potential lawsuit is not based on his personal blog. He is well aware of the reasons after several warnings.  Any other comments will be handled by my attorney.”

Barbara Ball contributed to this story.