The legacy of Jim Holderman's fall from grace

Government secrecy is at stake today

Attorney Jay Bender
Posted 4/10/21

To his admirers, former University of South Carolina president Jim Holderman was a visionary. 

To his detractors, he was a con who used public funds to burnish his image as a man with …

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The legacy of Jim Holderman's fall from grace

Government secrecy is at stake today

Posted

To his admirers, former University of South Carolina president Jim Holderman was a visionary. 
To his detractors, he was a con who used public funds to burnish his image as a man with world-wide connections. 
Both versions are rooted in fact.
Jim Holderman's legacy lives on in the SC Court's crucial interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act.
The FoIA applies to “public bodies” which are government subdivisions.
These are government corporations such as the Ports Authority, and entities supported by or expending public funds.  Public bodies are subject to the open records and open meetings requirements of the FoIA.
On the con side, Holderman used public funds for expensive gifts to the well-connected and to pay for high dollar hotel rooms and meals.  This side of Holderman came into public view because of a journalism student, Paul Perkins.
Perkins wanted to write a piece on Holderman’s hiring of Jehan Sadat, the widow of slain Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, to teach at USC. 
Perkins was impressed that USC could attract a person of Sadat’s stature to teach a course. His report focused on the upside he saw in the publicity generated by having this famous woman teach at USC. But like any good journalist Perkins asked how much it cost to have Sadat teach.
USC declined to disclose the cost. It said the contract with Sadat was not with the uUniversity but with a private corporation, the Research and Development Foundation. 
This was Holderman’s first error. 
Holderman and his top aides were advised privately that the information should be made public, but that advice was disregarded. 
This was Holderman’s second error.
Paul Perkins was married to Cheryl Perkins, a young, talented lawyer.  Cheryl filed a suit on behalf of Paul seeking records from the Foundation.
About the time Paul Perkins was making his inquiries, John Monk, then a reporter for The Charlotte Observer, requested access to financial records and contracts of the University and the Foundation.  
The Greenville News and the Associated Press also started looking into University Foundation expenditures.  
The University Board of Trustees voted, as the FoIA allows, to exempt records from disclosure. 
This was the third error.
Nothing gets a reporter’s juices flowing more than being told they can’t see records relating to public funds.
The AP and The Greenville News filed suit against the Foundation seeking access to financial records. 
The lead plaintiff was Chris Weston, then a reporter for the paper.  The trial of the case was before the late Carol Connor, a fearless circuit court judge. 
The plaintiffs focused on financial transactions involving the Foundation arguing it was a public body because it was supported by and expended public funds.  The plaintiffs urged the court to “follow the money.”
The Foundation occupied office space provided by and its staff was employed by the University. 
The University had bought the old Wade Hampton Hotel for a dorm. When it was sold, half of the proceeds of the sale went to the Foundation as a “donation.” 
When the federal government provided millions of dollars to build a University engineering building, the money was funneled through the Foundation. 
The City of Columbia and Richland County gave money to landscape the Coliseum.  The money passed through the Foundation.  
In a practice worthy of the Mafia, the Foundation “skimmed” a percentage of every grant awarded to a professor or to the University even though the Foundation did nothing to earn it.
The profit from every vending machine in every building on campus was in a slush fund Holderman controlled.
Judge Connor ruled that the Foundation was a public body and its records public. 
The Foundation appealed to the SC Supreme Court arguing it was a private, not for profit corporation not subject to the FoIA. 
When the case was argued before the Supreme Court several of the justices were recused due to University connections. 
An acting justice, now deceased, told me that after argument in the Weston case the justices left the bench for their conference room. Rather than sitting to discuss the case, they circled the table, saying  almost in unison that they believed the Foundation’s argument was “nuts.” 
The court’s unanimous decision was that the Foundation was a public body subject to the FoIA, and that its records must be disclosed.  The case is cited routinely by courts ruling on whether an entity is subject to the FoIA.
But the saga continued. 
After the Supreme Court ruling, the Foundation disclosed to lawyers for the AP and The Greenville News that the records had been “inadvertently” discarded. 
When this disclosure was publicized, a former Foundation ntern contacted the lawyers to say that he might have information about the records.
He said that the Foundation asked him to use his truck to haul some boxes to the landfill.  He thought the boxes might have the records.
The young man was able to identify a spot at the landfill where he unloaded the boxes. 
The AP and The Greenville News hired a bulldozer and operator to plow down through several layers of trash and soil to uncover the boxes.  
Reporters in Hazmat suits then pored over the records to develop a fuller picture of Holderman’s use of public funds. 
The case ended Holderman’s tenure as president of the University.
The Foundation was required to pay a sizeable sum as attorney fees and costs to the successful plaintiffs.  This included the cost of the bulldozer and operator.
Due to the erosion in newspapers' finances, it seems unlikely that today spending by public institutions, large and small, would be met with the vigorous and expensive challenge underwritten by AP and The Greenville News. 
SC public bodies from small fire districts to large organizations like Santee Cooper take advantage of the lack of oversight to engage in questionable spending.
 Because newspapers aren’t pushing the General Assembly for more open government, lawmakers have become complicit in secrecy. 
The true victims are the people of South Carolina who are frustrated and abused in their efforts to get information from school districts, police departments, local governments and state agencies. 
Holderman’s open government legacy lives but its continuing efficacy is at risk.
Jay Bender is a retired University of South Carolina professor and media lawyer who represents the Chronicle and other SC Press Association newspapers.
For questions or comments, please email JerryBellune@yahoo.com

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