Donations poured in after North Charleston High School Principal Henry Darby took an extra job at a Walmart to raise money for his students. But now the Charleston County School District is investigating his decision to put those funds in the hands of a controversial businessman.
Darby directed more than $200,000 to the school booster club, Cougar Spirit, an independent nonprofit corporation whose president is Jeremy Blackburn. In a 2020 IRS filing, the nonprofit listed its address as 450 Meeting St., the Charleston headquarters of Money Man Pawn Shop.
There have been no allegations money was misspent. But the pawnshop address and the involvement of Blackburn have raised questions.
Blackburn is best known locally for managing the failed redevelopment of the Charleston Naval Hospital, a project that cost Charleston County $33 million after the company Blackburn’s family co-owned declared bankruptcy and sued the county. He’s also a major landlord in North Charleston, where in 2018 two tenants won court settlements after contesting eviction notices and claiming Blackburn’s company had ignored necessary repairs.
In late June, a Charleston School District parent, Honor Marks, sent a letter to the school board raising concerns about Darby involving Blackburn in the high school’s affairs. She mentioned Darby’s “School of Innovation” plans — Blackburn was listed as a supporter in one school board agenda — and Darby’s decision to send donated money to Cougar Spirit.
Marks cited Blackburn’s involvement in the Naval Hospital project and a 2017 Washington Post article that noted two lawsuits against Blackburn that, in both cases, included federal judges stating that Blackburn had engaged in fraud. The Post and Courier had reported on those cases previously, involving a South Carolina insurance company and a North Charleston manufacturing business.
The district, in response to Marks, told her it would conduct an internal investigation — but would tell no one the results.
Oscar Douglas, a lawyer for the district, told Marks in an email that her concerns “referencing several matters, but specifically the NCHS Cougar Spirit Booster Club and its relationship with Jeremy Blackburn” were being addressed.
“First, school booster clubs are traditionally private groups and not under the auspices of the school district,” Douglas wrote. “However, since your complaint references one of our administrators, the matter is being investigated internally.”
Darby, who has been on medical leave since April, vehemently defended Blackburn.
“Why stir the pot on a school that’s being transformed for the betterment of the students and betterment of the community?” he said.
Darby said the goal of Marks and other critics, who he declined to identify, is to hinder his push to make North Charleston High an “innovation school” — an initiative that makes room for hiring educators who aren’t certified as teachers, and adding flexibility to some graduation requirements.
While Marks and others have expressed concerns about Blackburn’s involvement in North Charleston High School’s affairs, Darby reiterated his admiration for — and trust in — a man he called “a fantastic personality.”
“What concern is it of mine if he had failed businesses in the past?” Darby said. “This man has contributed beyond the call of duty. What does his past dealings have to do with North Charleston High School?”
Cindy Bohn Coats, a board member from North Charleston, said the donations that poured in for North Charleston were raised because of Darby, and she has full confidence in him.
“He would not put that money in the hands of someone he didn’t trust,” said Coats. “The reality is, people are concerned because Jeremy Blackburn is in charge.”
Similar questions were asked seven years ago, before Charleston County Council signed the Naval Hospital deal. The Post and Courier had published a profile article about Blackburn, who with business partner Donald Trump Jr. had been pitching the deal to local officials. That profile detailed how Blackburn’s business history “had a series of lows, including failed business deals in South Carolina, unpaid debts, allegations of fraud, and bankruptcy.”
There was the Utah bank shut down by regulators, the South Carolina workers’ compensation insurance company that ended in litigation over allegations of fraud (Blackburn agreed to pay a $757,500 settlement, but declared bankruptcy instead), an effort to buy up properties in majority-Black Atlantic Beach for about half what they were worth, a Georgetown condo project that ended in a $2.5 million loan default, and the failures of both Titan Atlas Manufacturing and Titan Atlas Global in North Charleston, which cost investors and taxpayers money.
Investors in Titan Atlas Manufacturing alleged “a continuing fraud perpetrated by Mr. Blackburn against ourselves and our investments in the company” in 2015. Previously, the company’s lawyers sued over unpaid bills, winning a more than $402,000 judgment against Blackburn in a case during which a U.S. district judge cited “Blackburn’s prior deceptive behavior” in an injunction order.
As a Charleston County councilman, Darby supported the Naval Hospital project and stayed in Blackburn’s corner, even as lengthy delays, claims of shoddy workmanship, and lawsuits by multiple unpaid contractors prompted the majority on council to eventually terminate the deal. The bankruptcy, lawsuit and $33 million county-paid settlement that followed, said Darby, was the fault of County Council because it voted to cancel its contract.
He credits Blackburn with hiring local residents to work on the Naval Hospital project. After Darby, fellow Councilman Teddie Pryor and county Program Manager Bernard Chisolm started an initiative called Men Under the Trees to help people in trouble find jobs, Blackburn hired everyone sent to him, Darby said.