Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Berkeley County Schools finance director fired after allegations of misappropriating funds

The chief financial officer of Berkeley County School District has been fired in the wake of allegations of misappropriating funds, and school officials had little to say Wednesday about the amount of money involved or the potential impact on schools there.

Brantley D. Thomas III, who has worked for the district since 1993, oversaw all of the district’s monies, including its nearly $260 million general fund.

Superintendent Brenda Blackburn, Board Chairwoman Sally Wofford, Vice Chairman Mac McQuillin and district lawyers learned of an investigation into the district’s finances during a Monday meeting with investigators from Wells Fargo and the FBI.

“We appreciate Wells Fargo and the FBI for promptly bringing this to our attention,” Wofford said in a statement released Wednesday. "We ask the public’s patience as we thoroughly investigate this matter and promise to take all appropriate actions.”

Blackburn fired Thomas, 60, on Tuesday, according to a district press release. Thomas has not yet been charged because the investigation is ongoing.

Calls to Thomas' home went unanswered Wednesday afternoon, and his lawyer, Matt Hubbell, said he could not comment other than to say that Thomas is fully cooperating with authorities.

The release did not specify how much money was at issue. It said a review of all financial accounts and monetary transactions is underway.

The school board held an emergency meeting Monday to receive advice from district lawyer Josh Whitley on a criminal investigation. It voted immediately to go into closed session, which lasted about an hour, and then adjourned without comment.

Board members reached Wednesday refused to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. They would not say how much money is missing or how it might impact district operations.

The district also declined to comment. An acting CFO has not yet been appointed, officials said.

The district has come under fire in the last couple of years for some financial decisions, including large property tax increases in 2015 and 2016.

In addition, after a State Law Enforcement Division investigation into the district’s $198 million Yes for Schools building campaign, the district spent more than $500,000 on salaries for indicted employees Rodney Thompson and Amy Kovach and lawyer’s fees for the pair and Deputy Superintendent Archie Franchini, who was not indicted. Thompson and Kovach both pleaded guilty to ethics violations in connection with the 2012 referendum campaign.

In November, voters expressed their dissatisfaction with the board by electing four new members associated with the county’s conservative Republicans. Three board members chose not to seek re-election and two incumbents, Chairman Jim Hayes and Julius Barnes, were defeated.

At its Jan. 10 meeting, the board received the results of an audit for its fiscal year ending June 30, during which Larry Finney of Greenville-based accounting firm Greene, Finney & Horton gave the district an “unmodified opinion,” the best result possible.

The audit did not look at every transaction, but instead used a sampling technique, Finney said at the time.

“Those are the kinds of things that let me sleep at night,” Superintendent Brenda Blackburn said upon hearing the favorable report.

Thomas, a Hanahan resident, is a 1975 graduate of Porter-Gaud and earned an accounting degree from Wofford College in 1979.

Until Tuesday, he was listed as chairman of the S.C. Association of Governmental Organizations, a nonprofit program created in 2002 to fund the building of school facilities through municipal bonds, according to its website. On Wednesday, Thomas’ name was removed from the site, and Horry County accounting officer William Saunders was listed as acting chairman.

Thomas' brother-in-law, Mike Gallagher, director of Compass Municipal Advisors in Columbia, serves as the organization's financial adviser and program administrator

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