ROCK HILL After one month as Winthrop Universitys president, Jamie Comstock Williamson sent an email to a senior staffer saying she wanted a paid, temporary position created for her husband, according to records obtained last week by The Herald.
The records show that Jamie Williamson suggested on Aug. 3, 2013, that Larry Williamson be paid $30,000 per year an amount she characterized as low enough not to attract critics.
In your role as chief of staff, I want to work with you to create a new temporary (I think that is the correct word) staff position for Larry, Williamson wrote Kimberly Faust, who also serves as secretary to the Winthrop Board of Trustees.
Download the PDF emails about Larry Williamson's hiring HERE.
As senior counsel for strategic initiatives, Larry Williamson should earn some nominal salary associated with the position to make it legit, Jamie Williamson wrote. She added that $30,000 was reasonable and that no other school would ever get (Larry Williamson) for four times that amount.
Less than a month later, Larry Williamson was hired for a part-time, temporary external relations job in the presidents office. His employment began on Sept. 1, and he was paid $27,000 until he resigned effective May 31.
The Williamsons returned the money June 12, after The Herald reported on Larry Williamsons employment.
The Herald, through a request filed under the states Freedom of Information Act, obtained about eight months of emails between Jamie Williamson and two Winthrop employees involved in hiring the presidents husband.
Jamie Williamson was fired Thursday by Winthrop trustees after less than a year as president. Among the reasons cited by the board for Williamsons firing was that she directed a university employee to make a hire in violation of the S.C. Ethics Act and Winthrops nepotism policy, according to a June 13 letter from trustees Chairwoman Kathy Bigham to Jamie Williamson.
The employee hired isnt identified in that reference. But elsewhere, the letter mentions the hiring of Larry Williamson.
Williamsons attorney, Bev Carroll of Rock Hill, declined to comment on Friday. She previously said the Winthrop board knew about Larry Williamsons hiring. Jamie Williamsons Aug. 3 email says Kathy is aware and encouraging of us formalizing Larrys role. She says the board expects it as well.
The president appears to be referring to Bigham, who declined to comment on Friday. Bigham said attorneys have advised trustees not to comment about Jamie Williamsons firing beyond statements already issued.
The emails are pretty direct in showing an obvious nepotism violation, says Barton Swaim, communications director for the S.C. Policy Council. The Policy Council bills itself as a private, non-partisan research group that promotes limited government, free enterprise and individual liberty.
South Carolinas ethics law says no state employee may cause the employment, appointment, promotion, transfer or advancement of a family member to a position in which the public employee supervises or manages.
Earlier this month, in response to questions from The Herald, Winthrop spokesman Jeff Perez said that while Jamie Williamson had discussions about her husbands employment, Faust initiated his hiring, approved his hiring and salary, and supervised him.
Perez and Faust declined to comment on Friday.
Perez said Winthrop believes that its decision with regard to Dr. Williamson was correct and in the best interests of the university and the university community. He couldnt comment further, he said, because there are legal issues surrounding Dr. Williamsons departure and related matters.
Earlier this month, Perez said Jamie Williamson did not hire her husband nor did she or the university violate any ethics laws or university policies in Larry Williamsons hiring.
Faust, who was out of the country at the time, only confirmed then that she had the authority to hire and fire in the presidents office as Winthrops chief of staff.
President rejected community relations role for husband
The emails between Jamie Williamson, Faust and Lisa Cowart, Winthrops associate vice president for human resources, show that Williamson began suggesting roles for her husband at Winthrop months before she took office on July 1, 2013.
Winthrop trustees selected Williamson on Feb. 15, 2013, to become the universitys 10th president. Less than two weeks later, she told Winthrop officials that her husband would serve on the presidents transition team, a group of people who helped the incoming president acclimate to her new job.
Then, she pitched his skills as a former public affairs and university administration professional. In a Feb. 27, 2013, email, Jamie Williamson noted her husbands career in the Navy and extensive background in higher education. He is a former college vice president and former executive director of the foundation at the University of West Florida.
Larry Williamsons expertise, she wrote, would be a vital resource to the transition team, and he would play a role as her spouse and as a special advisor to the president for external relations.
No mention was made in the Feb. 27 email about Larry Williamsons being paid for his work.
Nearly three months later, email exchanges between Faust and Jamie Williamson indicate that Winthrop would try to find a way for Larry Williamson to work on campus. On May 15, 2013, Faust suggested that the presidents husband could lead a new community relations office and help organize various nonprofit support efforts from Winthrop.
No mention was made in the May 15 email about Larry Williamsons being paid for his work.
Faust wrote that the community relations role would give Larry Williamson a natural entry into all community events and meetings on Winthrops behalf.
Jamie Williamson rejected the idea, saying the community relations role could easily be done (and typically is done) by a person with much less experience than Larry. The suggested role, she wrote, would not be the highest and best use of his talents.
Instead, her husband could work as the executive director of the Winthrop Foundation, Jamie Williamson wrote.
Its unclear from the emails if any other conversations occurred about Larry Williamsons working for the foundation. The foundations executive director did not change after Williamsons arrival.
In the emails obtained last week by The Herald, the earliest mention of Larry Williamsons earning a Winthrop salary appears to come in the Aug. 3 message from Jamie Williamson to Faust.
The emails raise questions about when Faust officially became chief of staff and when she began supervising Larry Williamson. While the Aug. 3 email from Williamson refers to Fausts role as chief of staff, other emails indicate Faust had not been officially appointed to that position in August.
An Aug. 22 email from Williamson to her husband noted that Fausts new job description was not complete. Until her title is official, we cant announce her new job and we cant answer questions about your role, saying you report to the chief of staff if there is no chief of staff, Williamson told her husband.
Fausts new position was announced in November. The announcement noted that Faust became chief of staff effective Nov. 1 two months after Larry Williamson was hired.
The emails also show that Larry Williamson played a key role in writing his own job description. The day after Jamie Williamson wrote to Faust about creating Larry Williamsons new job, he provided some initial language in an email.
As Jamie and I have discussed this, he wrote, the position needs to have the widest possible purview and portfolio as to allow for assignments across a wide range of subject areas and organizational schemes.
It needs to be general enough in order to allow for future assignments in areas that may not now be obvious.
He encouraged Faust to change his wording if necessary. While his wife had not seen his input, he wrote, unless I am seriously mistaken, it reflects some of our thinking and conversations.
Five days after Jamie Williamson suggested that Winthrop hire her husband, Faust sent an email to the president addressing Larry Williamsons job.
Her email states, We have an opportunity to hire a senior counsel for strategic initiatives, highly qualified and willing to work for a pittance We need to have him sign a contract before he comes to his senses.
Jamie Williamson responded and included Larry Williamson by copying him on the email. The president said Faust should add Other duties as assigned to the list of responsibilities.
In an apparent light-hearted remark, Jamie Williamson wrote: Perhaps our candidate will not notice this before he signs.
Question raised about nepotism
Within two hours of that exchange between Jamie Williamson and Faust, Cowart raised a question about how the public would perceive Larry Williamsons employment.
Cowart, Winthrops associate vice president for human resources, sent Faust a link to the universitys nepotism policy. She also wrote that, while (the president) will not be directly supervising (her husband), the argument that she is in the direct line of supervision may arise.
Cowart suggested that Larry Williamson could hold a job in another Winthrop office and his employment would likely raise fewer questions (or) interest.
Faust forwarded Cowarts email to the president and her husband and wrote that if Larry Williamson held a job in another campus office, it would take away some of the gravitas of the position. Plus, it will look like we tried to hide the position in another division.
Williamson responded that she agreed with the reporting approach because it was more suitable for the jobs responsibilities and also makes us appear transparent.
Other August emails from Faust and Cowart suggest that Winthrop officials believed Larry Williamsons job might continue past May 2014.
Earlier this month, Perez and Jamie Williamson told The Herald that Larry Williamsons work was intended to be temporary and to eventually end once Perez was hired for public affairs and external relations duties. Perez started at Winthrop Feb. 1.
In an Oct. 1 email, Jamie Williamson wrote that she would re-evaluate his role once Perezs position was filled but said her husband will likely remain on staff part time.
Faust told the president it would be easy to renew Larry Williamsons employment every year by re-submitting his temporary hire paperwork.
Hiring of husband is public corruption
Swaim, of the S.C. Policy Council, said Winthrop trustees firing of Jamie Williamson is impressive because normally (college boards) just rubber-stamp anything and everything the university wants to do.
The public should care about Winthrops hiring of the presidents spouse to a position in her office because nepotism is a form of public corruption, Swaim said. If left unchecked, all kinds of corruption can happen at public institutions, he said.
Jamie Williamsons emails about hiring her husband are flagrant violations of ethics laws, he said. Larry Williamsons $27,000 earnings may not be the most costly in terms of taxpayer dollars, but thats always not the most important part of nepotism violations, Swaim said.
The universitys employment of the presidents husband should lead to a state Ethics Commission investigation, he said. But, whether that can happen is uncertain, he said, because of the commissions limited powers and scarce funding for investigations.
If they investigate, state officials might determine that Jamie Williamson never directly supervised her husband because of Fausts chief of staff position, and therefore did not break ethics laws, Swaim said.
Larry Williamsons Winthrop position may have been one step removed from his wifes job, he said, but that was just a legal nicety it doesnt pass the smell test.
Anna Douglas • 803-329-4068
The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.
Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email email@example.com to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.Read moreRead less