A lawsuit claims Erskine College unconstitutionally redirected state funds to cover the pledge of a private group.
A Greenwood attorney, a representative of Sen. John Drummond’s estate and a trustee of the Drummond Trust have filed a lawsuit against Erskine College over a $700,000 state appropriation the South Carolina General Assembly gave the college in 2006.
Drummond, a Ninety Six native who represented the Lakelands in the state Legislature for more than four decades, died Sept. 2, 2016 at age 96. He retired from the Senate in 2008.
The 2006-07 Appropriations Act lists $700,000 under “Drummond Center Erskine College Program Support,” and documents attached to the lawsuit show the college received the check from the state on Dec. 15, 2006.
Attorney Robert Merritt filed a suit against the college last year for a judge to declare that documents related to the state appropriations are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and in November, a judge ruled in his favor.
In 2001, Erskine announced on its website the formation of a planning committee to spearhead development of a John Drummond Center for Statesmanship. The announcement said officials with the college “displayed plans for a facility to be constructed on campus to house the Drummond Center” and discussed staff positions.
Documents attached to the lawsuit show a series of events in the following years to garner support and raise money for the center — awards banquets, a Gold Campaign and grants.
In 2003, Erskine published an article about the center that said the mission was to “perpetuate statesmanship in South Carolina, while providing new professorships and a new political science major at Erskine. The center seeks to promote civil discourse in a non-partisan spirit for the betterment of South Carolina.”
In 2005, the college announced it had secured a land donation, and in 2006, Erskine published an announcement on its website that it had a $700,000 pledge from the state toward a professorship at the center. An announcement on Sep. 18, 2006, said a groundbreaking for the center had been scheduled in October.
Emails to Erskine staff from Jay West, former vice president of institutional relations and executive director of the Drummond Center, in September of 2006 show staff from the State Treasurer’s Office pledged to raise $300,000 through a Grady Patterson Chair Committee to start an endowed chair in honor of Patterson, who was the state treasurer and was up for re-election at the time.
An email from West said the endowed chair “is not public knowledge due to Patterson’s re-election campaign.” In November of 2006, Patterson lost his bid for re-election to Thomas Ravenel.
On Dec. 13 in 2006, two days before Erskine received a check from South Carolina for $700,000, West sent an email to the college’s vice president for development saying the Patterson Chair Committee had met that morning in Columbia and two members pledged $200,000 each to the endowed chair, raising “the level of commitment toward the chair from $300,000 to $700,000.”
In 2009, an email from an assistant at Erskine to other staff members said the $700,000 check from South Carolina “should have been listed under Grady Patterson Appreciation Committee.”
A document with a list of donors for the center shows “State of South Carolina” crossed out and replaced with “Grady Patterson Chair” listed by a pledge and donation of $700,000.
A FOIA Merritt filed in 2017 to the state Budget and Control Board and the state Department of Administration showed no record of the state appropriations for the Drummond Center.
On Wednesday, Merritt filed a suit with two other plaintiffs alleging Erskine redirected the state appropriations to cover a private pledge for its Grady L. Patterson endowed chair in the political science program rather than a brick and mortar facility in honor of Drummond.
Carol Cheeks, a representative of Sen. John Drummond’s estate, and Charles Schulze, a trustee of the Drummond Trust, are also listed as plaintiffs on the suit.
The suit lists the following as defendants: Erskine; James Lucas, Speaker of the House of Representatives; Hugh Leatherman, President Pro Tempore of the Senate; Brian White, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee; Curtis Loftis, treasurer of South Carolina; and Marcia Adams, executive director of the South Carolina Department of Administration.
Erskine doesn’t have a facility dedicated to Drummond for its political science program, but the school didn’t have a political science program prior to receiving the state appropriation for the center, and Greg Haselden, former vice president of finance and operations at Erskine, told Merritt in a response to his FOIA request that the funding was always intended to support a political science program rather than a brick and mortar facility.
“The program to be supported by the State Appropriation was always intended to be a political science program at Erskine College through the establishment of a Grady L. Patterson, Jr. Chair/Professor of Politics,” Haselden wrote. “The brick and mortar facility was not constructed due to a lack of funding.”
But Merritt argues in his lawsuit that the appropriation violated South Carolina’s Constitution if it went to the Grady L. Patterson Chair.
Article XI, Section 4 of the state Constitution says “Direct aid to religious or other private educational institutions prohibited.”
Documents retrieved by FOIA are attached to the lawsuit from initial Drummond Center plans, which include a presentation listing the benefits the center would provide the college and the state — it lists forums, retreats for county governments, business retreats, conferences for candidates and a “Living History of SC Statesmen” as possible uses for the center.
But a brick and mortar facility was never built, and although the college has a political science program, it isn’t named after Drummond.
Attorney General Alan Wilson wrote an opinion dated March 12, 2014 concerning a public entity that attempted to donate money to Limestone College — a private, Christian school in Gaffney — that said “an outright donation (to the school) without anything received in return would not further the core function or corporate purpose” of the Gaffney Board of Public Works, which tried to donate $150,000 to the school.
“It should also be noted that this monetary contribution may be troublesome under S.C. Const. art. XI, § 4, which states: ‘No money shall be paid from public funds nor shall the credit of the State or any of its political subdivisions be used for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution,’” the opinion said.
The suit’s first cause of action insinuates there could likely be a quid pro quo for the state if the appropriations were used for a John Drummond Center for Statesmanship, but not if the funds were used for the Grady Patterson Chair or a political science program “for the sole benefit of Erskine College.”
The suit calls for an exact accounting of the $700,000 and for it to be returned to the state if the accounting does not show it went to the John Drummond Center for Statesmanship. It also calls for the return of property taken from the Drummond estate to be displayed in the center to Cheek, who is the personal representative of the estate. The third cause of action is to return a “valuable and irreplaceable” portrait of Drummond to Cheek, which it says she personally owned.
“This Court’s guidance is needed because, upon information and belief, Erskine College is currently seeking other funding from the State of South Carolina,” attorneys wrote in the document, referencing the college launching the Charter Institute at Erskine, which has asked for state funds for the upcoming fiscal year as a charter school authorizer.
The filing includes a letter from Cheek to Merritt stating that West showed her a blueprint of the Drummond Center set to be built on Lake Russell and that she had been assured the portrait would be displayed in the center before she agreed to let Erskine have it.
West, who now represents Abbeville and Anderson counties as a Republican in the House of Representatives, said he left the college in 2007.
“I know what happened during my tenure at Erskine, but I have been disconnected since I left in 2007,” West said.
A request for comment to a representative with Erskine College was not immediately returned.
Cheek’s letter said she has tried to retrieve the items over the years since a facility was never build in honor of Drummond, but that no one she contacted at Erskine could tell her where the items were, except for one crushed box of papers.
“I know that Senator Drummond was very proud that the Drummond Center was to be built and that the $700,000.00 appropriation would be used for that purpose. In fact, he showed me the appropriation himself as proof that any concerns the Center would be built were laid to rest,” Cheek’s letter said. “He never would have allowed state funds to be disbursed to Erskine were he not convinced that those funds would be used correctly. His whole political career was built on honesty, integrity and the great love of South Carolina.”