Is the NEA-Supported Campaign of John Kerry Using Dues Money to Help Him?
District 5 school board campaigning investigated
State alleges employees endorsed candidates using school property
By BILL ROBINSON, The State (South Carolina), October 10, 2004
The state Ethics Commission will investigate allegations of electioneering on school grounds by Lexington-Richland 5 school employees, including use of the school system's Internet service.
The probe will take place after Nov. 2 because state law precludes the agency from taking action within 50 days of an election, commission director Herbert K. Hayden Jr. said.
Hayden's Sept. 30 letter to Superintendent Dennis McMahon outlines five "allegations of violations of the state campaign finance laws," but the director said in an interview his agency "doesn't have enough information right now about who the complaint should be directed at."
While the Hayden letter does not identify specific candidates, the allegations in it appear to involve the race for the lone seat on the 2004 ballot that must be filled by a Richland County resident. Kim Murphy of Chapin is challenging first-term incumbent Robert Gantt of Irmo in that race.
Gantt, the father of three Dutch Fork High graduates, said he believes the complaints are directed at him or his backers, some of whom he acknowledged might have been naive or inadvertently overzealous in showing support for his candidacy.
"I don't think anybody did anything intentional," he said. "I certainly didn't authorize it."
Widely considered one of South Carolina's top-performing school systems, Lexington-Richland 5 serves about 16,000 students in the Irmo-Chapin-Dutch Fork area east of Lake Murray.
Murphy, the mother of three children who re-enrolled in Chapin public schools after she home schooled them a year ago, said she was aware of the Ethics Commission interest in her race. Someone whom she said she could not recall shared a copy of Hayden's letter with her, possibly via fax.
Murphy said she is not responsible for bringing the complaints to the Ethics Commission's attention, and does not know who did. "I'm glad they were sent," she said, noting she heard a "whispering campaign" about problems for weeks.
Hayden wrote to McMahon that the Ethics Commission received several letters "requesting an investigation," and the agency decided the complaints warrant its attention. His letter to McMahon does not identify who sent the letters.
Hayden's letter asserts:
• Raffle tickets were sold "from the Dutch Fork principal's office" with proceeds going "to a school board candidate"
• A campaign yard sign has been displayed on school property
• E-mail was distributed on district computers "advocating support for school board candidates"
• A campaign meeting notice was listed on a school Web site's weekly calendar
• E-mail encouraging children to participate in a parade with candidates also was distributed to and from district computers.
"These aren't new allegations," District 5 spokesman Buddy Price said. "We've heard them before."
Price said that, as far he knew, none of the complaints has merit.
"We've had complaints about one candidate or another doing things some people think are inappropriate, and we've talked repeatedly to principals to be on the look out for it," he said.
Price authored a response to the Ethics Commission with nearly 20 pages of attachments demonstrating how the District 5 administration has cautioned employees about election-year behavior.
Ron Cowden is Dutch Fork High's principal and a Gantt supporter. Cowden said Gantt has been a stalwart advocate on behalf of the school and strong trustee during his four years on the board.
Cowden's Jaguar has a Gantt sticker affixed to the bumper alongside one for the re-election of President George Bush. Inside the car is another sign promoting Gantt's campaign.
"I make no bones about it. I support Bob Gantt," said Cowden, who lives across town in Spring Valley and therefore cannot vote for him. "You support the people you are loyal to."
District 5's attorney advised the administration that employees have a First Amendment right to display bumper stickers as well as signs inside their personal vehicles, Price said.
Cowden denied raffle tickets were sold from his office, but acknowledged he did caution colleagues who were helping the Gantt campaign defray expenses to stop fund-raising activities on school grounds or on school time.
Cowden also said he knew of an e-mail that circulated among faculty and staff regarding the school board election, but he immediately took steps to keep it from happening again. He said he did not know anything about a posting on the school Web site calendar about a meeting, which Price said took place after school and off campus.
District 5 trustees manage a $106.2 million system of 19 schools. State law gives the seven-member board the authority to levy property taxes to produce the local share of funding that spending plan.
Reach Robinson at (803) 771-8482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.