Claims of ethics violations have been made against some members of the Aiken County School Board following the resignation of Superintendent Dr. Sean Alford.
Two former board members, Ahmed Samaha and Tad Barber, sat down with the Aiken Standard for an interview Sept. 12 and said some of the nine board members who were with them on the board before they resigned had information that others did not have before some of the school board's public meetings.
Samaha and Barber resigned following the school board's vote to accept Alford's resignation at a special called meeting Sept. 5.
Rosemary English, who has been on the school board since 1998, resigned Friday. In her resignation letter, English called for an ethics investigation of the current board, writing that the sitting board should be “willing to submit to a thorough investigation of the board members, practices, proceeding, etc. from November 2018 through September 13, 2019, with such investigation being conducted by the Ethics Commissions or an organization so designated and qualified to scrutinize ethical behavior of elected officials.”
In an email Saturday, School Board Chairman Keith Liner responded to the calls for an ethics investigation, writing, "Each individual Board member has the right to their own opinion. As a Board we are charged to respect these individual opinions as we deliberate and vote impartially for the good of the District. Paraphrasing Aiken County School District Policy BC, Board Member Conduct, once a vote is taken the Board respects the result of the decision of the majority and proceeds forward supporting the decision. The Board’s conduct is governed by Aiken County School District Policy BCA, Board Member Code of Ethics, which outlines the way the Board conducts its business in accordance with the state ethics laws."
During the Sept. 12 interview, Barber and Samaha cited a specific example when, they said, not all board members were given the same information about items on which the board took action.
Barber also said he believes some of the current board members have violated 11 items on the board's “Code of Ethics.”
Samaha cited the board's meeting Aug. 27 as an example of when not all board members received the same information that other members receive. At that meeting, the school board met in executive session to receive legal advice about Alford's treatment of a school district employee, Andrew Cox, Samaha said.
Cox, the school district's former director of technology, has said he has an audio recording of Alford threatening him in June, according to a Sept. 10 news broadcast on an Augusta television station.
Cox first accepted and then declined to an interview about the recording with the Aiken Standard, citing corporate policy of his current employer. He did not respond to a request from the Aiken Standard to produce the recording to be verified by an independent agency for authenticity and whether it had been edited or altered.
Before the approval of the agenda at the Aug. 27 meeting, Samaha made a motion to table the employee matter involving Alford, who resigned as district superintendent Sept. 5.
“It is my understanding that some members of the Board have some information that other members were not privy to. I think in order for us to have an informed discussion that probably should not have happened,” Samaha said at the meeting as reported in the Aiken Standard.
The motion failed by a vote of five to four. Liner, Vice Chairman Dwight Smith, Jason Crane, Barry Moulton and Brian Silas voted against the motion. Samaha, Barber, Sandra Shealey and English voted for it.
“That (motion) was specifically about this issue about Dr. Alford, about how Dr. Alford – now that it's come out – treated an employee. I had asked prior to that meeting if we could have the documents they were referring to that was causing this problem,” Samaha said. “At that time, we had no idea what the problems were. We just all had suspicions and thought we knew what it was.”
Samaha said, “It was obvious that certain board members had information that other board members didn't have.”
“I asked why the vice chair had that information because, if the vice chair had it, the rest of the board should have had it, in my opinion. That's my opinion,” Samaha continued. “That question never got answered. I asked Keith, but the entire board was included. He initially said on advice of legal he couldn't share. Then I replied and said I didn't agree and asked for the information to be sent. Keith stopped responding.
“Come to find out, those were not the only two board members who had that information, and I'll speak only for myself: other people had that information about Alford's supposed treatment of an employee. Some members of the board had that information while others did not.”
Barber said Crane was aware of the audio recording.
“My understanding is that Mr. Cox went to Mr. Crane with the audio,” Barber said.
During public participation at the Sept. 10 school board meeting, a speaker said of Crane, “I understand that you and Andrew are best friends and that you recruited Mr. Cox to your Edward Jones office, and that is where he is employed.”
Samaha said he also learned that some board members had the information about Alford's treatment of Cox at least six weeks before the Aug. 27 school board meeting.
“So that raises a whole bunch of questions: if this is such a great matter, why are we waiting six weeks; if we're concerned about the safety and the well-being of our district employees, why are we not addressing it immediately? All of it seems to be suspicious,” Samaha said.
Samaha said the board's actions at the Aug. 27 meeting were “just one example of when we would have discussions when it was obvious that some of us were not privy to information and the others were.”
“I wonder how it could seem that five would have information that four did not have unless they were meeting outside of meetings,” Samaha said.
Barber said if some of the board members did communicate “outside of meetings” that might not “necessarily mean that they were physically meeting.”
“It could be emails,” Barber said. “But if it wasn't information per se, they were aware that something was about to happen.”
The Aiken Standard has sent a Freedom of Information Act request for all public and private emails that discuss board business from the Aiken County School Board members during and also for Alford's emails.
Samaha said he wanted “to be very clear” that the audio recording is the only issue the entire school board was made aware of about Alford's employment.
“There have been a lot of rumors out there that there are other accusations that the board heard or considered, including financial mismanagement or property issues,” Samaha said. “This is the only issue that the entire board was made aware of about Dr. Alford's employment. The only one.
“Now, if other board members have information about things, that just proves my point that they're not sharing information with the full board.”
Samaha reiterated that the “audio recording is the only issue that the board talked about in terms of Dr. Alford and his employment with the school district.”
“Nothing. I mean we never talked about anything else. We didn't sit there and talk about rumors we heard. We didn't do any of that. Nothing else ever came up either in a public meeting or in executive session.
“And I find it very disingenuous that other people in this community are making accusations that the board knew of criminal activity and were covering it up because, literally, the only issue that we ever talked about was this issue that was presented with any evidence or facts or anything to the full board.
“And I think that's very important to state because I think some folks have made accusations that just aren't true and implicated that the board members who resigned were complicit, and that is blatantly not true.”
Barber said he believes since the election in November 2018 a majority of the board's current members have at times violated the board's “Code of Ethics.”
At the first meeting after the election, Barber, who had been the vice chairman before the election, was the chairman until Liner was elected to the position.
“The first act of mine besides going to a meeting was to have a work session specifically to inform the new board members of their duties,” Barber said.
Samaha said the work session was led by the executive director of the S.C. School Board Association.
Concerning the violations, “I highlighted the ones I think they violated, and it's not one or two,” Barber said, producing a copy of the code. “It's a multitude of them.”
The items Barber highlighted were as follows:
• Representing, at all times, the entire school district.
• Recognizing the integrity of his/her predecessors and associates and the merits of their work.
• School board is policy-making, not administration.
• Refusing to be influenced for personal or political gain.
• Accepting the responsibility of becoming well-informed concerning the duties of board members.
• Recognizing that authority rests only with the board in official meetings and that the individual member has no legal status to bind the board outside of such meetings.
• Making decisions only after all facts bearing on a question have been presented and discussed.
• Respecting the opinion of others.
• Giving the superintendent full administrative authority for properly discharging his/her professional duties and holding him/her responsible for acceptable results.
• Referring all complaints to the lowest administrative level possible for consideration, recognizing that through the appeal process all concerns may come to the superintendent and ultimately to the board after all administrative procedures have been exhausted.
• Presenting personal criticisms of any employee directly to the superintendent.
“In my opinion, these are are the ones that they violated,” Barber said. “They don't always represent the entire school district. They're looking out for their own situation. They're not very well-informed of the duties of board members, and that's why I had that work session because I wanted the state association of school boards to come in and give them a presentation.”
According to the board “Code of Conduct” Barber shared, “School board members are under the jurisdiction of the 'Ethics, Government Accountability and Campaign Reform Act,' Section 8-13-0, et seq., S.C. Code, are are subject to rules of conduct of the statute.”