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Report: $1M in misspent money at Laurens school district was not fraud

FILE - Laurens County School District 55 sign.
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FILE - Laurens County School District 55 sign.

A report by the South Carolina Inspector General’s Office(SIG) finds that nearly $1 million in misspent money at a Laurens County school district was the result of failing to follow sound financial practices, not fraud.

Last December, SIG opened its investigation into a speech/language therapy services provider at Laurens County School District 55, following a request by the County Legislative Delegation. The delegation alleged that an unlicensed employee of a district vendor was providing the services.

“The Delegation also requested the SIG to review any additional allegations of fraud, waste, abuse, mismanagement, misconduct, violations of state or federal law, or wrongdoing as deemed appropriate,” according to the report.

By the time the investigation concluded, SIG found discrepancies in eight areas, ranging from $11,105 in overpayment payments to an unlicensed speech/languages pathologist assistant, to $531,016 to “vendor payments without a contract.”

In total, SIG found $973,751 in misspent funds.

“The SIG did not identify criminal activity or indication of fraudulent activity,” the report stated. “However, the risk of fraud is elevated at the Moderate – Moderately High level given the significant deficiencies and material weaknesses in the lack of internal controls and unsupported expenditures.”

Rather than fraud, SIG concluded that the issues was best summed up by a phrase investigators heard frequently during interviews with district officials: “This is the way we’ve always done it.”

SIG recommends an audit by the state Department of Education (SCDE) into the district’s financial practices, “to include but not limited to, internal controls and financial reporting, and provide training to the District on its fiscal practices.”

In an email, SCDE said: "Superintendent [Ellen] Weaver is evaluating the contents of the report. She looks forward to working on any remediation needed with the school district."

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.