Commissioners accuse former S.C. agency director of mishandling sexual harassment matter

Commissioners accuse former S.C. agency director of mishandling sexual harassment matter
During a meeting that was only accessible to the public through an audio stream, DDSN Commissioner Stephanie Rawlinson read a letter that is expected to be sent to former state director Mary Poole. (Source: SC.gov)

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - For the first time since firing the agency’s state director, the commission of the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs publicly addressed their decision on Monday.

During a meeting that was only accessible to the public through an audio stream, DDSN Commissioner Stephanie Rawlinson read a letter that is expected to be sent to former state director Mary Poole.

“The majority of the commission lost confidence in your judgment to handle important matters,” the letter noted, adding that “specifically, the majority of the commission was concerned about the manner in which you handled an executive-level employment matter related to sexual harassment. [The] majority of the commission believed that you mishandled the matter and lost confidence in your ability to continue to lead the department.”

Additional details regarding the matter in question have yet to be revealed and a signed copy of the letter has also not yet been released.

All commissioners voted in favor of the letter, except for Commission Chair Gary Lemel, who abstained. Due to his role as chair, Lemel is one of two commissioners expected to sign the document, with the other being Vice Chairman Barry Malphrus, whose district includes much of the Lowcountry. Lemel previously voted against Poole’s firing, while Malphrus voted in favor of it.

Poole claims that she found out about the formal reason for her termination by reading media reports, noting in a statement on Tuesday afternoon that “the Commission has never once asked me about the handling of this personnel action nor provided me an opportunity to respond.”

“I strenuously disagree with both the content of the letter read aloud in yesterday’s DDSN Commission meeting and the method by which they chose to inform me of the reason for my termination,” Poole said, adding that “I stand by all of my actions regarding the handling of the incident in question and find it shameful that the Commission decided to make public a confidential matter.”

Poole says that when she was made aware of an allegation related to this incident, she engaged outside legal counsel in order to facilitate an external investigation. She says she later assigned DDSN’s human resources director to write a new policy regarding matters of this sort after learning that one was not in place.

During Monday’s meeting, commissioners announced plans to keep Constance Holloway as Poole’s interim replacement and use a company called Find Great People to assist with the search for her permanent replacement. Invitations for representatives to help with the search are also slated to be sent to the South Carolina House of Representatives, Senate, and Governor’s Office.

Poole is not the only member of DDSN’s executive staff to leave the agency over the last few weeks. Chief Financial Officer W. Chris Clark submitted his resignation letter just a few days after Poole’s firing.

In a statement issued on Tuesday morning, Clark said that he feels “it is necessary to clarify that I was not party to the matter referenced,” noting that “I was not and have never been accused of sexual harassment before, during, or after my employment with SCDDSN.”

“My resignation was due to concerns related to the lack of ethics and integrity possessed by the Director of Internal Audit,” Clark wrote. “Additionally, my decision was related to lack of confidence in the new SCDDSN Commission to do what is in the best interest of those served by the agency.”

DDSN spokesperson Kimberly McLeod said in response to Clark’s remarks that he “was not the subject of the employment matter relating to sexual harassment mentioned in the letter to the former director.” and that to the agency’s knowledge, “he has never been suspected of engaging in any financial impropriety during his tenure as chief financial officer.”

After Poole was terminated, the commission also implemented a hiring freeze that covered the entire agency, but the freeze’s impact on frontline workers was lifted during last Wednesday’s meeting. At the time, Rawlinson stated that “we did not intend to stop services. We meant to stop some reckless spending, that kind of thing, until we made sure everything was going right.”

McLeod subsequently said that “Commissioner Rawlinson did not intend to imply that any financial misconduct has occurred. It is standard for the Commission to perform a thorough evaluation of the agency after a state director leaves in order to identify any potential problems before the next state director comes on board. That includes taking a close look at the agency’s spending.”

Clark mentioned on Tuesday that “vague statements made by commissioners indicating there were financial improprieties or reckless spending” have been made “without merit and impugn the integrity of the executive team at DDSN that has led a complete fiscal turnaround of the agency and has successfully navigated the fiscal challenges associated with COVID-19.”

DDSN operates facilities such as the Coastal Regional Center in Dorchester County, which was the subject of COVID-19 and staffing concerns last year, and coordinates with disabilities and special needs boards at the county level throughout South Carolina.

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