SC State Trustees met with consultant behind closed doors - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina |

SC State Trustees met with consultant behind closed doors

Posted: Updated:
ORANGEBURG, SC (WIS) -

When the South Carolina General Assembly passed the state's Freedom of Information Act in 1974, it was to make sure the public had access to the papers and meetings of its government.

In the opening section of the FOIA, state lawmakers made the purpose of the law clear: "The General Assembly finds that it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that citizens shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in the formulation of public policy."

The South Carolina State University Board of Trustees held a formal board meeting Wednesday. The university sent a public notice out and an agenda to let the public know what the board meeting would cover. But, a little more than an hour after the board voted to adjourn, several members of the university's Board returned to campus and met in a closed-door dining room.

TRUSTEES MEET WITH PRESDIENT AND CONSULTANT

We watched the first trustee return to campus at 5:36 p.m. It was John Corbitt, who was not at the official board meeting earlier that day. Corbitt drove up in his black Dodge and parked it near the university's campus dining hall. Trustee Katon Dawson met up with Corbitt and the men walked inside.

Over the next several minutes, we counted a total of eight of the university's 13 trustees returning to campus and walked into the dining hall. The university said there were nine trustees inside. They met up with university president Thomas Elzey, a clerk to the board and a consultant named Joseph H. Silver.

We stayed outside and shot video of the gathering through a glass door. University staffers served the 11 university officials and the consultant dinner. We walked inside to see if we could get into the meeting.

As soon as we got inside the dining hall, you could hear trustee Dawson talking loudly saying, "Corbitt wasn't here to (inaudible)... that's why that meeting got sideways, doc it's your fault."

Dawson made a reference to the official board meeting held earlier that day. We waited outside the dining room when the board's clerk walked out and confronted us.

"Was there a meeting notice sent out," Barr asked the clerk.

"For what," the clerk asked.

"Well, there's more than a quorum of board members," Barr responded.

"Well, there's a dinner," the clerk replied.

"They're discussing state business, I heard them," Barr said.

"Dr. Silver is here, the consultant for tomorrow, that's all this is, a dinner," the clerk explained.

"Can we come in," Barr asked.

"No," the clerk replied.

"It's a dinner. Is that the official word?" Barr asked.

"Yeah, that's all it is," the clerk said.

The state's FOIA law defines a meeting in section 30-4-20 as, "…the convening of a quorum of the constituent membership of a public body, whether corporal or by means of electronic equipment, to discuss or act upon a matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power."

The question is: Were SC State University officials discussing public business?

"THIS WAS A MEETING AND IT WAS ILLEGAL"

Jay Bender, an open records expert and an attorney who specializes in the state's Freedom of Information Act, said he has no doubt the meeting we caught on camera was "illegal."

"There is no dinner exception to the FOIA," Bender said in response to the university's explanation that the meeting was simply a dinner. "I wasn't born yesterday. You have these people, whose common interest is SC State University, in one room. They're going to be talking about SC State University and if it's the Board of Trustees that has the power to run the university, that's within jurisdiction of the board-- that was a meeting. The fact that dinner was served does not excuse holding it without notice, holding it behind closed doors and not letting the public in."

Bender said the reason for the state's FOIA law was to ensure governments across the state conducted public business in the open, so the public could see. The meeting Wednesday night, Bender said, is a direct violation of the law.

"The fact that there was a consultant who is coming in to make a presentation to the board relative to the message of South Carolina State, leads me to the conclusion that there was school business discussed at that dinner," Bender said. "The fact that it's called a dinner doesn't make any difference because there's a specific provision in the law that says: no chance meeting, no social meeting can be used as a means to circumvent the requirement of the law."

It happens every day, Bender said.

"It happens with school boards, happens with police departments," Bender said. "It's a cultural problem. We've had a history in South Carolina where a thin veneer of political elites have run the state. They've told us what we'll like and unfortunately for hundreds of years, we've put up with it. We need to change the culture. It needs to be unacceptable for public business to be conducted behind a closed door."

SC STATE UNIVERSITY RESPONDS

The university maintains there was no public business discussed during the Wednesday night meeting. SC State University president Thomas Elzey, through his public relations unit, denied us an interview concerning this story.

Instead of an interview, Elzey's spokeswoman Sonja Bennett released this statement, "What WIS-TV Reporter Jody Barr describes as a ‘secret meeting' was simply a dinner in which some members of the SC State University Board of Trustees were given the opportunity to meet and socialize with Dr. William Silver. Accordingly, pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, public notice was not required."

Bennett told WIS Elzey needed a consultant to "craft a message" to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which is an accreditation agency based out of Georgia. The university received a warning letter from SACS months ago and will meet with the agency in April.

The day after the dinner with Joseph H. Silver, the university agreed to pay him $27,000 for "board training" and "SACS Response assistance," according to an email from Bennett.

The university said Silver was hired in January.

The Silver and Associates website shows the company is based out of Houston. The site lists the company's specialties as, "…providing Temporary Staffing, Payrolling, Contract and Direct Hire Services." The site states Silver and Associates is a "minority owned business" that has performed those tasks for more than 30 years.

The site does not show any services related to higher education or any SACS-related specialties.

Copyright 2014 WIS. All rights reserved.

Powered by WorldNow