WIS Investigation: Booster club didn't follow its own rules

CAYCE, SC (WIS) - "with my son being a senior next year I was hoping to see him walk across the stage," said Michelle Swancey,  who took the same walk herself back in 1987.

A graduate of Brookland-Cayce High School, a parent of a football player, Swancey said she wanted to be involved in the school. When approached by members of the Brookland-Cayce Athletic Booster Club, she said she was thrilled to join the group.

"I knew presidents from the booster club," she said. "I knew members from the booster club from past years and I knew that we could build on what they created. When I got involved it wasn't so cut and dry."

Swancey said looking back now, she should have seen the signs something wasn't right.

Take, for instance, the meeting when Swancey was given the club's secretary position. She said she had to insist to the club's president, Thurmond Grimsley, that the booster club board would have to vote her in.

"I immediately started taking minutes because nobody was taking minutes," she said. "I didn't know what kind of guidance they expected at that point."

And despite that, Swancey said she saw no red flags.

Swancey said once on the board, she immediately began asking to see the club's bylaws, which are rules and regulations every South Carolina booster club is required to have.

"Looking back now, I should have noticed the first time they said that they didn't operate by bylaws that I should have been concerned," she said.

However, WIS found a copy of the booster club's bylaws on its web site. Our investigation found the club clearly violating its own bylaws.

Searching through dozens of pages of documents, we found several checks, written by the club. Checks for more than $500. Checks that, according to the bylaws, should have had two signatures.

But we found booster club checks only signed by former club President Thurmond Grimsley.

The bylaws also say the booster club board must approve all money spent by the club. Treasurer Belinda Wilkinson said she was ordered by Grimsley to write checks, spending money through transactions that were not voted on.

 "I tried to question that and I was told not to worry my pretty little head about it, just to write the checks," said Wilkinson.

14 checks totaling $2,000 of the booster club's money went to pay people for helping out with Brookland-Cayce football games. Some of those people are school district employees.

Wilkinson said the proper payroll procedure was not followed.

$2,114 of the booster club's money went to pay for the school's football team to eat at a West Columbia sports bar. In fact, Athletic Director Rusty Charpia took the team to the sports bar at least six times during the 2011 football season.

"This was a booster club that was to fund athletics at the school," said Wilkinson. But, she said, "Most of it was going to towards football."

In minutes, recorded and given to us by Swancey, from back in March, Athletic Director Rusty Charpia is noted for asking the booster club to change the bylaws, to give him better access to the club's money.

But WIS found financial records that show Charpia signed two of the booster club's checks, though bank records show he was not listed on the account, or as an approved signer. One of those checks went to the West Columbia sports bar. The other was written to cash.

When asked if the school system was aware of these checks and if it would comment,  school district attorney Jake Moore said:

"I cannot comment to you right now on specific allegations of what we are looking in to. I will tell you this: We are familiar with what you are talking about. We pretty much checked it out. From what we can determine, from what we think the auditors are telling us, is the money was spent for an appropriate booster club purpose. There is a legitimate explanation for what has happened here."

Moore said what was done is not fraud.

"Oh no, good gracious not," he said, because, he said, the people who signed those checks had permission to do so.

"If you sign my name on my business checking account and I direct the bank that it is okay to cash that check and they cash it, that's not fraud," he said. "It isn't even criminal. It's not wrong. It may be a breach of protocol, but it's not wrong. It's not fraudulent."

When we explained what we found to the South Carolina Bankers Association, they told us if the funds were taken from the checking account without permission, it's wrong.

WIS had to interview the school system's attorney because district assistant superintendent Jim Hinton had no comment.

When WIS went to ask the school system directly about the booster club, assistant superintendent Jim Hinton didn't want to answer our questions, so WIS went to the district's attorney.

When asked why the booster club was disbanded with $11,000 left in the account, Hinton said, "I understand, but no comment."

WIS tried to ask Rusty Charpia about the booster club, but he did not return our calls.

The same goes for former booster club president Thurmond Grimsley.

"If our football coach did something wrong, he'll be dealt with," said Moore. "If someone has stolen money, which I don't think they have, we'll turn it over to law enforcement. If there have been financial procedures that are questionable but no money stolen, we have to adopt policies to make sure that doesn't happen again."

WIS has learned that the Secretary of State's Office is now looking into the booster club's finances. We asked for the club's financial records. The Secretary of State's office provided those for four years, but the records from 2011 to 2012 were never filed. The 2013 report is due this year.

Lexington District 2 officials are looking into the disbanded booster club, though they will not confirm what specific allegations they are investigating.

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