BEAUFORT, S.C. – The Beaufort County Board of Education is under fire for spending $2,600 on an outside attorney to write a letter to reprimand one of its own board members.
Former board chairwoman Mary Cordray hired a Columbia-based law firm to write a three-page cease-and-desist letter to fellow board member and frequent critic JoAnn Orischak in December, an expense that was approved by only three of 11 board members, the Island Packet reports.
Cordray, who is no longer board chair, defended the nearly $2,600 letter – despite the fact that the district employs a staff attorney – as a necessary move to control the board. But Orischak contends Cordray was “way out of line” by unilaterally hiring an outside law firm, and should have sought approval from the full board.
According to the Island Packet:
The school board has been dogged by dysfunction, in-fighting and, at times, increasingly personal attacks since it came under scrutiny for its lack of action during the scandal involving the hiring of Superintendent Jeff Moss’ wife in 2015. Orischak is one of the most vocal dissenters on the school board, often voting against the majority bloc.
The letter, which the board eventually voted 7-3 to send to Orischak, demanded that she cease and desist from “all actions which adversely affect the functions and operations of the District and the School Board.”
It was crafted by Boykin & Davis law firm for $2,592.50 and signed by Cordray.
An email obtained by the news site shows Orischak attempted to gain information about the expensive letter from staff attorney Drew Davis, who alleged he knew nothing about it.
“You report to the Board,” Orischak wrote to Davis. “I find it incredulous that you have no knowledge” of the attorney who was hired and what fees were paid.
Davis eventually revealed the information, though he told the Island Packet he did not know the board hired the law firm or crafted the letter at the time.
Orishak told the news site Cordray overstepped her authority.
“(Cordray) did not have the right to seek outside counsel without the permission of the full board,” she said, pointing to the board policy manual that offers no guidance on hiring outside attorneys.
Cordray, meanwhile, contends she did nothing wrong.
“There is no requirement for a board to vote for outside counsel,” she said, pointing to other examples that did not require a board vote. “It’s standard practice for chairs, not just me.”
The letter apparently angered some in the community, including a former school board member in Massachusetts who moved to the area in 2003.
Shortly after the board adjourned a work session on legal counsel in late April, resident John Dowling confronted Cordray over the letter and “the continued character assassination of Cordray and company to vilify people who disagree with them.”
Dowling allegedly told Cordray “you are one sick coward and it’s going to stop.
“You have a pathological hatred against someone who has never done anything to you and you’ve turned it into a yearlong witch hunt,” Dowling told the Island Packet he said to Cordray.
Cordray then alleged Dowling threatened her, and had the district’s chief auxiliary services officer escort him from the building, according to the news site.
“(Being escorted out) was payback for every critical remark I have delivered to the board and, in particular, to Dr. Moss and Cordray,” he said. “(The exchange) was a private citizen expressing an opinion to a public official. She isn’t used to being talked to that way. Nonetheless she has to endure being talked to that way.”