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Documents reveal what led up to firing of SC disabilities director

Updated: May. 27, 2021 at 4:21 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Hundreds of pages worth of documents obtained by Live 5 Investigates reveal that the firing of a state agency head was not as sudden as it previously seemed.

Emails released through a Freedom of Information Act request show that a handful of commissioners of the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs planned out exactly how to remove then-State Director Mary Poole from her position.

“The Executive director has lashed out and taken revenge on so many individuals & agencies across this state that it’s almost impossible to keep count,” a plan for a February executive session said in part. “This is not the reputation we want and it is certainly not professional or acceptable.”

DDSN, which describes itself as “the state agency that plans, develops, coordinates and funds services for South Carolinians with severe, lifelong disabilities,” operates facilities such as the Coastal Regional Center in Summerville.

Live 5 Investigates first started looking into DDSN in July 2020 after more than a dozen Coastal Regional Center employees reached out to us with concerns related to the virus and what they described as a staff shortage, long hours, and low pay.

DDSN is among Dorchester County’s largest employers and its center there saw more than 130 positive cases of COVID-19 among residents and employees during the pandemic. Poole later said that “while there are always opportunities to learn and improve, I am proud of our performance.”

We continued to monitor monthly DDSN commission meetings for COVID-19 updates. Then, in a February meeting that was only accessible to the public through an audio stream, Poole was fired.

Poole seemingly had no idea her termination was coming later in the meeting. She said to commissioners in regard to an upcoming communication, “We’ll be sending that [information] out next week. I don’t like to send out really big memos on Fridays.”

However, hours later in the same meeting, one commissioner said, “I move that Mary Poole be removed as director from DDSN and removed from service as an employee of DDSN immediately.”

Commissioners voted five to one to fire Poole, with the one vote in opposition coming from DDSN Commission Chairman Gary Lemel. Poole had served as the DDSN state director for almost two and a half years.

The majority of the commission later publicly accused Poole of mishandling an executive-level sexual harassment matter, but the agency has refused to provide details about the allegations.

At the time, Poole’s firing seemed to come out of nowhere, but internal documents reveal that there was a plan for Poole’s firing that day, all outlined in an email.

The plan, which was shared among at least four out of the six commissioners, discussed how exactly they would bring up Poole’s termination in the February meeting’s executive session.

It says that Commissioner David Thomas would ask Lemel to say what he knew about sexual harassment and sexual discrimination investigations in the executive suite and when he knew it.

The plan also accused Poole of having a “serious lack of leadership ability,” but did not go into any detail about the sexual harassment allegations.

The documents further show that Poole and another administrator were not getting along.

The email references a list of five concerns that DDSN Internal Audit Director Kevin Yacobi raised about Poole last winter. Yacobi accused Poole of attempting to influence judges of an award and breaking policies related to procurement, the creation of a new division, and an actual or perceived conflict of interest.

Poole fired back in a Feb. 12 memo to commissioners, denying much of Yacobi’s accusations and saying in part that he had an “extreme bias against me” and had a “goal to oust the state director.” That same day, Yacobi was given a written disciplinary action warning accusing him of “hostile” conversations with Poole and another employee.

Six days later, Poole was fired by the commission. DDSN is currently looking for someone to replace her.

Poole still will not talk in detail about the sexual harassment allegations either, but told us in an email shared by her lawyer that she “handled the matter appropriately” and did not expect to be fired.

She also says that she did not know that the plan existed, writing that, “My opinion is that it is factually incorrect and conspiratorial in tone. The fact that two of the commissioners were left off the email chain is concerning, as well as the fact that the commissioners were conducting a secret meeting via email to avoid the obligations of the Freedom of Information Act.”

We have continued to ask questions about the state director’s firing and requested interviews with agency leaders.

DDSN spokesperson Kimberly McLeod told us the situation was not newsworthy and that our reporting on it would only serve to distract staff from their mission.

McLeod said, “Writing about the petty squabbles between employees and publishing negative information about former/current employees does not serve the public interest because Mary’s termination has had no impact on the agency’s ability to [continue] serving individuals with disabilities.”

Poole disagrees.

“It is in the public interest that members of the Commission not conduct unlawful secret meetings outside of the Freedom of Information Act,” she wrote. “It is in the public benefit interest that the internal auditor conduct meaningful investigations rather than pursue personal vendettas. It is certainly in the public interest that DDSN operate[s] effectively to serve some of our state’s most vulnerable citizens.”

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