Oversight committee recommends state commission be dissolved after new audit

That bill stems from an oversight committee’s recommendation to do so, after a year and a half long investigation.
Published: Mar. 28, 2023 at 6:02 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 28, 2023 at 6:28 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - The senate unanimously voted on a bill that would eliminate the Commission that oversees the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs and re-establish it as part of the governor’s cabinet at the state house Tuesday.

It needs one more reading to pass in the senate.

That bill stems from an oversight committee’s recommendation to do so, after a year and a half long investigation.

READ MORE: State auditors plan investigation of SC disabilities department

The 46-page document published last week is just part one of two. A second and longer portion is expected to be complete by this summer.

In it, the Legislative Audit Council wrote that it found members of the commission had “most likely” violated South Carolina FOIA law multiple times, abused their positions of power, and had recently increased frivolous expenditures of taxpayer money.

The Legislative Audit Council reports that even after receiving training, the commission continued to discuss public matters via email.

Over a year long period, 34 emails were identified as possible meetings where a quorum or all members were involved.

The seven-person commission is also blamed for micro-managing day-to-day functions of the department, overburdening staff and keeping them from getting their jobs done including the commission-appointed director.

The agency has lost two directors in the span of less than two years.

In February 2021, the commission fired Mary Poole for “mishandling a sexual harassment case” which then sparked a wrongful termination lawsuit. This past January, Dr. Michelle Fry resigned after just one year on the job.

At least three commissioners were also accused of leveraging their position to get information and advocate for family members under the care of Department of Disabilities and Special Needs, including Chairman Stephanie Rawlinson and the newest member of the group Michelle Woodhead.

The paid deny this was an abuse of their position in power.

The commission is reported to have significantly increased its spending over the last three years. In 2019, it spent $16,661. That number then jumps to $84,472 in 2021 with higher expenditures on travel costs, new custom tablecloths and monthly cellphone expenses. Rawlinson wrote in her response that this was in part due to having a fully staffed commission, accommodating the needs of a fellow commission member who is disabled, and complying with the recommendations made by the Senate Medical Affairs Committee in 2017.

Rawlinson also calls the accusations of failure to follow South Carolia FOIA law “without merit and slanderous” and “acknowledges the Commision could have been more supportive of DDSN staff ... but that trust works in two ways.”

Meanwhile, Vice Chairman Barry Malphrus, who represents in part the tri-county area, says that he never intentionally violated FOIA.

He also wrote he “stressed the Legislative Audit Council’s failure to recognize the important, lasting reforms and accomplishments that the Commission and DDSN staff worked together to make.”

Two members, Commissioner Gary Kocher and Eddie Miller, generally accept the findings.

Kocher wrote that he believes the issues can be traced back to two or three other unnamed members.

He’s asked for their resignation.

One commissioner, David Thomas, did not respond at all to the audit.

The state senate will hear additional legislation inspired by this audit tomorrow in Columbia.