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Univ of SC trustees blistered for secret trip, coach buyouts

South Carolina Rep. Bill Whitmire, R-Walhalla, swears in a college trustee candidate before the College and University Trustee Screening Commission on Tuesday, March, 30, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Jeffrey Collins/AP
South Carolina Rep. Bill Whitmire, R-Walhalla, swears in a college trustee candidate before the College and University Trustee Screening Commission on Tuesday, March, 30, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

A small group of powerful lawmakers is refusing to approve reelection bids for five University of South Carolina trustees.

The lawmakers are upset over $10 million loaned to the athletic department out of regular funds to buy out a football coach's contract and a secret plane trip they took to meet with a candidate for university president who flamed out after 22 month s on the job.

The five men have all served the board of the state's flagship university since at least since 2010. Just in the past three years, they dealt with a divisive presidential search where the governor got involved and threatened the school's accreditation, sexual harassment lawsuits and paid close to $20 million to fire coaches in high-profile sports — one of the biggest amounts in the country.

"The university in my opinion has finally reached a level of a dumpster fire," said Rep. Kirkman Finlay, a Columbia Republican.

The College and University Trustee Commission, which includes the Senate president and House speaker, decided not to vote Tuesday whether to send the trustees to an election before the entire General Assembly on May 4. Bills that may start moving soon in both the House and Senate would cut the number of trustees on the board.

All five University of South Carolina trustees — C. Dorn Smith, Thad Westbrook, C. Edward Floyd, John von Lehe and Charles Williams — testified under oath Monday before the committee. It is digging into their finances, demeanor and philosophy on providing advice to the school's athletic director.

They all promised the board has put its differences behind it and learned from the problems. "The board works together better together now under an organization structure," Westbrook said.

But Sen. Dick Harpootlian, recalling his days as a prosecutor, said he wasn't buying the promises that all was better.

"Even when people move in different directions or turn over a new leaf there should be consequences," the Columbia Democrat said.

One extensive topic of questioning was the hiring of retired Army Gen. Bob Caslen as University of South Carolina president in 2019. It was a contentious search that initially saw Caslen and three other finalists rejected. Critics said Caslen was inexperienced in running a large public university and knew nothing about the school.

Gov. Henry McMaster, an ex officio trustee, stepped in and asked board members to hire Caslen, Four trustees who supported Caslen flew to Florida on a university plane to secretly meet him

McMaster's involvement, calling each trustee, and his chief of staff sending text messages to trustees like "the Democrats hate us. We took their castle" led to an investigation into the university's accreditation and changes in how it hires president.

"That search was a mess," said Westbrook, adding he apologized to fellow trustees.

Caslen resigned last May after he was caught plagiarizing a graduation speech. Months later, a public records request for his emails came across a note to a fellow university president.

"This place sucks so bad," Caslen wrote. "I don't know how anyone can stand it."

The next presidential search had problems too. University donor and Nephron Pharmaceuticals CEO Lou Kennedy resigned from a search committee after Smith told her she was on the panel as a "courtesy." Lawmakers asked Dorn and others if there were harsh words, anger or fingers wagging in Kennedy's face.

Trustee Alex English, a former star University of South Carolina basketball player whose reelection bid was confirmed Tuesday, said he could see where Kennedy felt mistreated.

Smith said he didn't remember wagging a finger in Kennedy's face.

"I have the utmost respect for her. She is a laudable member of our community and I regret if I upset her," said Smith, who added after the confrontation in an Atlanta hotel where the committee was reviewing resumes Kennedy was pouring champagne on her private plane for the trustees at the retreat.

The hearing also revealed the university's athletic department was so strapped for cash after COVID-19 took a $40 million chunk from its budget that it had to borrow $10 million from the school's general fund to pay off a nearly $13 million buyout to football coach Will Muschamp. That stunned lawmakers, who had been told for decades that athletics pays for itself.

Earlier this month, the school fired men's basketball coach Frank Martin and will pay him $3 million not to coach.

"Shouldn't we fire y'all like we did Muschamp and Frank Martin? Certainly your buyout is a lot cheaper," Harpootlian said.

The University of South Carolina trustees were grilled over five hours of hearings. On Monday morning, lawmakers questioned four candidates for three trustee seats at Clemson University for less than an hour.

That led Williams to a painful revelation about his school's chief rival in all sorts of endeavors — from academics to the football field to blood drives and collecting canned food.

"Clemson's board is a great example of how a good board operates," Williams said.