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Richland 1 auditor says he was told not to issue written reports. District leaders deny this

Richland District 1’s internal auditor says Superintendent Craig Witherspoon and a former board chairman told him to stop issuing written reports, according to a memo.

But Witherspoon “strongly disagreed” with that claim during a school board committee meeting Monday. The accountant’s claim led to an altercation between Witherspoon and board members Jamie Devine and Robert Lominack, who believed he was being accused of racism.

The dispute comes as Richland 1 is under scrutiny by two government agencies. The district has been under budget oversight by the South Carolina Department of Education for a year and a half. In January, the state Inspector General began an investigation into Richland 1 at the request of state Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver, after the district was accused of failing to obtain the proper permit to begin construction of a $1 early learning center 31 million in Lower Richland.

A memo written by Richland 1’s internal auditor, Kelvin Washington, was posted on social media this week. In the memo, which explained the lack of formal dissemination of an audit of Columbia High School, Washington noted that the superintendent and a former board president had an ongoing request asking that no written reports be issued. But he did not note in the memo why the request was made.

The state has contacted Washington about the memo.

The memo, which was written on Feb. 21, was brought up by Lominack during the board’s committee meeting on Monday. During the meeting, board members discussed the district’s budget and a request to the Richland County Council for a tax increase.

“That destroys our credibility,” Lominack said about the memo during the meeting. “It destroys our chances of getting more money.”

Richland 1 administrators boast that the district is one of the few in South Carolina with its own internal auditor. Witherspoon said the district has had clean audits for the past 36 years. But during Monday’s meeting, Lominack claimed the board rarely listens to the accountant. Lominack cited concerns the auditor raised about the district’s use of purchasing cards, or “p-cards,” to make purchases and about Richland 1’s contracts with some companies.

Lominack said the board had not received a report from the auditor in more than a year.

Witherspoon defended the government. “The whole internal audit process has somehow turned negative and I have you,” he said.

“It appears you asked him not to provide anything in writing,” Lominack said.

“I strongly disagree with that statement,” Witherspoon replied. “I did not tell an internal auditor not to report. … This district has survived and has always been transparent.”

Witherspoon repeatedly said he “strongly disagreed” with the claim that he asked the accountant to stop writing reports.

Board member Jamie Devine interrupted Lominack, saying he was “one person, one opinion,” and accused Lominack of making the district look bad by “surprising” the board with the auditor’s memo.

“This is 2024, this is not back in the 1950s and 1960s where you can discredit a certain group of people,” said Devine, who is black. “I’m not going to stand for it. … This happens when people don’t like certain people doing certain things.”

Lominack, who is white, said it was a “veiled, not-so-veiled” accusation that he was angry about the memo because Witherspoon is black.

“The district provided this memo, but apparently is not aware of it,” Lominack said. “So don’t blame me for some surprise.”

Devine disagreed with Lominack’s reference to race.

“I didn’t say that,” Devine replied. “If that’s how you feel, then that’s how you feel.”

In a statement to the State, Witherspoon said he had not seen the memo before it was brought to his attention Monday. He and former board chairman Cheryl Harris denied ordering the auditor to stop the written reports.

“Regarding the specific matter addressed in the memo, the internal auditor was asked to personally provide an update to the entire Board of Directors and answer any questions,” Harris said in the statement.

Lominack declined to comment further on the record. Devine could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Richland 1 was placed under budget supervision in December 2022 after former state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman raised concerns about “significant deficiencies and material weaknesses” in a p-card audit that she said could impact the district’s financial well-being . The province tried to appeal, but it was rejected.

The state inspector general has been investigating Richland 1 since January, after Richland County halted construction of the Vince Ford Early Learning Center. The district is accused of beginning construction without following proper approval channels and failing to obtain proper permits after being told by the Department of Education that it could not be considered a public school building .

The state reported that the interrupted construction cost the district $813,000 as of May 3 for site security, inspections and stabilization.

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