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Winthrop board accuses president of lying, violating S.C. ethics law; Williamson threatens lawsuit

Suspended Winthrop President Jamie Comstock Williamson abused her authority, lied to the school’s trustees, and engaged in “explosive” and “unprofessional” behavior, according to a letter board Chairwoman Kathy Bigham sent Williamson Friday.

Williamson, who became president on July 1, 2013, was suspended by the board on Friday and given notice of the board’s intention to terminate her employment with cause. Williamson’s attorney has since threatened to sue the university.

The board took action, Bigham wrote, in part because Williamson misled trustees in three areas: the hiring of Williamson’s husband, Larry, by the president’s office; communication with students about fee increases; and a salary review process.

The letter also cited Williamson’s “inappropriate and unprofessional behavior.”

“You have violated the university’s General Conduct Policy in failing to adhere to basic principles of integrity, honesty, respect for others, fairness, and accountability,” Bigham wrote in the letter.

Williamson’s attorney, Bev Carroll of Rock Hill, responded to the board’s allegations in a letter dated Monday. She said board members were aware of Larry Williamson’s employment and were not misled about communication of a summer school tuition increase. The letter also said that board members specifically told Williamson that decisions about salary increases were up to her.

“It seems apparent that some board members have their own agenda and are not pleased to deal with a woman who is direct in her approach and is not concerned with stroking personalities,” Carroll wrote.

The letter says Williamson may sue the board for “breach of contract, slander and defamation,”

among other claims.

“We believe that the board's stated basis for termination does not satisfy any of the grounds for termination for cause, which are set forth in the (employment) agreement,” the letter said.

Also, Winthrop’s board has not given Williamson the chance to “cure” any “alleged deficiency” in her job performance. Under her contract with the university, Williamson should have been given 30 days after written notice to fix any issues, the letter said. Friday’s notice of termination does not meet the school’s requirement to give proper notice under Williamson’s contract, her attorney says.

Last week, Winthrop officials took Williamson’s keys to her office in Tillman Hall and blocked her from accessing email or the university’s technology server, “depriving her access” to records that would allow Williamson to respond to the trustees’ concerns, Carroll said.

Larry Williamson’s employment

Bigham’s letter, written at the direction of the board of trustees, made several allegations about Larry Williamson’s employment.

“You have misled trustees on the hiring of your husband to a trusted position as your special counsel, and you intentionally caused documents to be prepared which falsely characterized the hiring of your husband in contravention of South Carolina ethics laws and the university’s stated Nepotism Policy,” the letter said.

The Herald first reported on heraldonline.com last week that Williamson’s husband, Larry, had worked for nine months in the president’s office as a part-time temporary employee. The president’s office said Williamson’s husband had been hired by the president’s chief of staff, Kimberly Faust. Larry Williamson did not report to the president, according to her office.

The president’s office said Larry Williamson’s employment did not violate the state Ethics Act. The Williamsons later said they had returned his $27,000 salary.

Another section of Bigham’s letter said Williamson “directed a university employee to make a hire in violation of the S.C. Ethics Act and the university’s Nepotism Policy.” While other sentences referred specifically to Larry Williamson, that section did not.

In her letter sent to trustees this week, Carroll said Larry Williamson’s employment “could have easily (been) handled in a different manner” if board members had offered to supervise Larry Williamson themselves, instead of the president’s staff. Trustees knew the president’s husband was an employee months before he resigned in May, she said.

“To now try to characterize Larry’s lawful engagement at Winthrop as some type of undercover operation by Dr. Williamson is ridiculous and is solely designed to save face for those parties who were a part of this entire engagement after being questioned about it,” Carroll wrote.

In the past, trustees acknowledged Larry Williamson’s potential contributions to Winthrop, Carroll wrote.

“Being able to utilize Larry’s skills was described by at least one board member as a ‘2 for 1,’ meaning that the university recognized it could use his skills for the university's benefit,” Carroll said. She added: “We believe that not one member of the executive committee gave any thought about any now purported ethics violations because it was clear that Larry's role could in no way be deemed any such violation.”

Trustees never “expressed any concern ... nor instructed Dr. Williamson to remove (her husband) from the position,” according to Carroll’s letter.

Bigham’s letter also accused Williamson of misleading the board about her efforts to inform faculty and students on “significant” fee increases.

While the letter did not identify the increases, The Herald reported last month that some people on campus were surprised that Winthrop’s summer tuition was increased by 40 percent this year. It was the first increase in summer tuition in eight years.

In 2012, Winthrop’s board delegated to the university’s president the responsibility to set summer tuition rates. Trustees still vote on spring and fall tuition costs.

University officials said the tuition rate was posted online before registration for classes began. Officials said Winthrop did everything this year as it has in years past to promote and inform students about summer school. President Williamson said those efforts didn’t result in the information “trickling down as would have been most desired.”

In her letter to trustees, Carroll wrote that there is “absolutely no basis for the claim that trustees were ‘misled’ about how faculty and staff were informed of tuition increases.” Plus, President Williamson acknowledged that “she would develop a method to better handle tuition notices going forward.”

Another allegation in Bigham’s letter said Williamson had misled trustees on a salary review process “you claimed recently you had conducted.”

The Herald reported last month that President Williamson approved pay raises of 10 percent or more for several top-level staff members. The pay raises included a 33 percent raise for Winthrop Police Chief Frank Zebedis and Athletic Director Tom Hickman.

Williamson said the salary increases followed a salary review that showed Zebedis, Hickman and others were underpaid when compared to their counterparts at others schools.

Trustees said then that they were unaware of the raises and would look to set new policies to give the board more oversight over compensation for Winthrop employees.

Carroll points out in her letter that one board member told the president that trustees could be “a sounding board” to discuss raises but that “she need not seek approval for staff raises from the board.” She added that “at no time has Dr. Williamson knowingly provided false or misleading information and certainly has not done so regarding salary increases and tuition.”

Bigham’s letter also made several general accusations against Williamson. Winthrop board members say they’ve been “unable to make properly informed decisions” because President Williamson “provided false and misleading information to trustees,” according to their letter.

“You have provided false and misleading information to others resulting in false information being published in local and statewide media and to the Winthrop community ... You provided false and misleading information in response to lawfully submitted freedom of information requests,” the letter said.

Their grievances with the president were acts that were “undertaken or omitted knowingly and would tend to bring public disrespect, contempt or ridicule upon the university,” Bigham wrote.

Trustees: President acted ‘hostile’ to staff, trustees

The trustees’ letter also accuses President Williamson of “explosive, berating, demeaning, hostile, condescending, rude and other unprofessional behavior.” Winthrop staff members are “fearful of how you will respond to information they provide to you in the context of their jobs,” Bigham wrote to Williamson.

Bigham did not specify employee complaints about Williamson but said her “unprofessional behavior” targeted her top-level executive staff members, clerical workers, faculty members and Winthrop trustees.

“Despite your assurances that such behavior would cease, you have persisted in conducting yourself in this manner to the detriment of others and the university,” the letter states.

Carroll responded to that allegation by saying Williamson “has been told that her direct manner was not suitable to her now Southern setting.”

More, Carroll wrote, “She has been told that some board members were concerned with her continued desire to see Winthrop as a place of learning for first generation college students and minorities.”

Carroll’s letter also hints to friction between the president and Winthrop’s trustees over day-to-day operations of the university.

Williamson was “challenged” when some trustees wanted to “expand their personal roles and those of outsiders,” her letter states. The president “had to deal with individual board members who asserted themselves in student affairs,” Carroll wrote.

Carroll drew parallels in her letter between Williamson’s “difficult issues” in her first year as president and retired Winthrop president Anthony DiGiorgio’s “freshman mistakes” early in his tenure in the 1990s.

Winthrop faculty members held a “no confidence” vote in DiGiorgio’s leadership in 1995 –– six years after he was hired. Board members defended the president.

Winthrop’s board “chose to stand by Dr. DiGiorgio” then, but has “quickly abandoned its role to provide guidance (to Williamson) to deal with some difficult issues,” Carroll wrote.

The way Winthrop trustees have handled actions against Williamson “has not only harmed” her client but also “has caused damage to Winthrop University,” Carroll wrote.

Williamson has a chance to respond to the board’s concerns about her performance at 10 a.m. June 26 at Winthrop. She must notify the board by Friday if she decides to address the trustees, either privately or in public session.

Winthrop board Vice-Chairman Karl Folkens told The Herald on Tuesday that he is not aware of the president responding as to whether she'll address the board next Thursday.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068
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