COLUMBIA — Take a look at the list of this year’s candidates for South Carolina’s college boards and it feels like family — a very well-connected family.
About a dozen of more than 70 candidates for 52 college board of trustees seats have connections to state lawmakers, who are set to choose board members in early May. The connected hopefuls are relatives of sitting state lawmakers, former legislators themselves or others with various legislative ties.
A lawmaker responsible for examining board applicants, a state watchdog group leader and some of the candidates’ challengers are raising concerns that these ties to the Legislature may give the hopefuls an improper advantage.
Greer GOP Rep. Phyllis Henderson, a member of the joint legislative committee that screens college board candidates, said having to vote on connected candidates makes her uncomfortable.
“It’s just you’re having your colleagues that you serve with ask you to support a family member, and if for some reason you don’t support them, you feel awkward trying to tell them no,” she said.
Trustees have broad influence over the way schools are governed, helping oversee institutions that receive millions of dollars from the state annually. While largely financially uncompensated, being a trustee confers a social currency and can serve as a launching pad for a political newcomer.
Nowhere is the connected candidate trend more evident than at the Medical University of South Carolina, whose board of trustees has the largest number of such applicants. They are:
Murrell Smith Sr., the father of Sumter GOP Rep. Murrell Smith and a doctor.
Michael Stavrinakis, brother of Charleston Democratic Rep. Leon Stavrinakis and a businessman.
William Bingham Sr., father of Cayce GOP Rep. Kenny Bingham, incumbent board member and civil engineer.
Jim Battle, a former Democratic state representative from Marion who left office in 2012 and a businessman.
Ragin Monteith, wife of lobbyist and Richland County Councilman Damon Jeter and a doctor.
Robin Tallon, a former S.C. House member and U.S. representative who is an incumbent board member and works in government relations.
In the Lowcountry, The Citadel and the College of Charleston have their own connected board candidates, one at the military institution and three at the College of Charleston.
Several legislators on the committee in charge of screening college board candidates said the connections aren’t a factor in who will be selected.
There are no specifications laid out in state law for what qualifications candidates must meet, with one exception: Members of The Citadel’s Board of Visitors must be graduates of the college. “There’s just nothing to go by,” Henderson said.
The chairman of that panel, GOP Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler of Gaffney, said he and other committee members look for a variety of things in determining which candidates are qualified.
“It’s in their pedigree of public service,” he said. “Different people serve differently. Who they are related to shouldn’t help or hurt.”
Screening committee member Rep. Peter McCoy Jr., R-Charleston, said candidates with connections to the Legislature are coming from families who have a strong passion for public service. “These are folks who want to put themselves forward and want to serve. Anybody who makes it out of screening deserves a fair shot,” he said.
Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard has a different view, saying there are some “incestuous relationships” between the college boards and the General Assembly.
Holding a trustee position is not a directly lucrative endeavor.
Public college board members in South Carolina receive $35 per day for meetings. Other benefits can vary by institution, according to screening committee staff.
Artifact of the system
Woodard and another political observer say the fact that there are large numbers of connected board candidates is a product of the way the state’s selection process for board seats works, with legislators determining appointments.
Winthrop University professor and pollster Scott Huffmon noted that the state selects judges in the same way. This year’s class of judges selected earlier in the legislative session included a few connected candidates, including a pair of ex-lawmakers.
“That’s what’s going to happen when this is the selection method,” Huffmon said.
He said outsiders are going to wonder about the level of autonomy college boards have when board members have ties back to the Legislature.
Woodard said connected board candidates have an advantage.
“Needless to say, an ex-legislator has a leg up on anybody else if they want to get involved,” he said.
Woodard warned that in some cases, legislatively appointed board members don’t have a good knowledge of issues such as curriculum or building and development.
Lawmakers’ appointment of family members to college boards appears to be legal, according to an attorney for the State Ethics Commission. S.C. ethics law dictates that public officials may not “cause the employment, appointment, promotion, transfer, or advancement of a family member to a state or local office or position in which the public official, public member, or public employee supervises or manages.”
Cathy Hazelwood, an attorney for the Ethics Commission, said it would be “hard pressed” for her to say that the House or Senate directly manages college boards. She said a challenge to the practice of appointing family members to college boards would have to be settled by a legislative ethics committee if a person filed a complaint.
John Crangle, the executive director of state government watchdog group S.C. Common Cause, said such appointments often are made for the wrong reasons and have been a long-standing issue.
“One of the problems is that there’s too many insiders, too many campaign contributors rather than people based on merit and what they can bring to the job,” he said. Crangle’s prescription? The state should create a centralized board of regents to oversee all public colleges and universities, eliminating the need for appointments to a host of separate boards.
Many states and university systems across the country use centralized boards.
Evidence of a divide on board appointments can be seen in the local race for a 1st Congressional District seat on the MUSC board. Restaurateur and small businessman Michael Stavrinakis is competing with Susan Pearlstine, a local philanthropist and businesswoman.
Both live in Charleston. Pearlstine said her four decades of service to MUSC in various capacities and her commitment in the form of major gifts to the university makes her more qualified than Stavrinakis.
She feels lawmakers choose board members based on who they know. “Every time I actually get a lawmaker on the phone, they say, ‘Well, you just need to come to Columbia,’” she said. In Pearlstine’s experience, that means standing in the underground Statehouse parking garage to meet legislators as they leave their cars, and also lingering in hallways.
She said the need for frequent appearances in Columbia by board candidates eliminates opportunities for service by many people who are busy in the business and philanthropic worlds. “In my opinion,” she said, “it does a real disservice to the board.”
Pearlstine said she can’t hope to compete with Stavrinakis if lawmakers elect board members based on how many times they see candidates in Columbia.
Those appearances have been frequent for Stavrinakis, who said there’s a good reason lawmakers want to make personal contact with board hopefuls at the capitol.
“Those legislators want to get to know you,” Stavrinakis said. “They want to feel comfortable when they distribute $100 million to MUSC. They are picking and choosing candidates who they feel are going to be responsible for that money.”
He said his experience as a businessman, including dealing with health insurance issues up close, offers a valuable commodity to the MUSC board.
Stavrinakis doesn’t think his brother being a legislator gives him a leg up on Pearlstine.
“I have been thoroughly and seriously vetted by many, many legislators,” he said. “Just because you might be related to a legislator, they are not just taking that you are qualified for granted. They are doing their due diligence.”
Move for reform
Henderson, the state representative from Greer, reached a conclusion after sitting through hours of board candidate screening hearings late last month — the system needs to be reformed.
She said she will file legislation as early as next week that would ban state lawmakers and their immediate family members from seeking a college board seat or judgeship until the legislator is at least one year removed from office.
Currently, there is no prohibition on family members running for judgeships, board seats or other positions on bodies not directly managed by the Legislature. For example, this year the Legislature elected a family court judge who is the wife of North Charleston GOP Rep. Chris Murphy.
State lawmakers already must wait one year before running for judge themselves or registering as lobbyists, but can run for a college board seat immediately. Henderson said under her proposal, the new rules would take effect in 2014, allowing currently serving family members and ex-legislators to remain in place. The measure is likely to meet opposition.
“I don’t know how that’s going to fall with some of my colleagues,” she said.
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.