Watchdogs urge scrutiny of S.C. lawmakers business ties
The prevalence and acceptance of business relationships between lawmakers and special interests in South Carolina might warrant federal intervention, government watchdogs said last week.
The suggestion followed revelations from a report in The Post and Courier and from Gov. Nikki Haley’s attorneys saying such arrangements are more commonplace than the public thinks.
“That’s the political culture and that is a very hard thing to change,” said Ed Bender, executive director of the National Institute of Money in State Politics. The national, nonpartisan and nonprofit group tracks, among other things, the influence of campaign donations and lobbying on politics.
“If this is a pattern showing up in South Carolina time and again, it might be time for higher authorities to step in,” Bender said.
When Haley drew renewed criticism last month over allegations she illegally lobbied while serving as a Lexington County House member, her attorney went on the offensive, countering that everyone in the Legislature is doing it. Attorney Butch Bowers said he would release a list of legislators who have received income from organizations that lobby in the Statehouse.
The pervasiveness of special-interest influence does not reflect well on the Palmetto State, said J. Michael Bitzer, who has followed South Carolina politics for two decades and now teaches political science at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C.
“When it gets to the point of saying, ‘Well, everyone is doing it,’ that means there is a cultural aspect that is very detrimental to the political system as a whole,” Bitzer said. “When trust in government is at a historic low, do you want to be feeding into the idea that you’re all out for yourselves?”
He referenced Operation Lost Trust, the 1990 votes-for-sale sting in the S.C. Statehouse. Known as the biggest legislative public corruption prosecution in U.S. history, the FBI operation resulted in the convictions or guilty pleas of more than two dozen lawmakers, lobbyists and others.
“When one party is in power for too long, you get this sense of entitlement,” he said. “They don’t learn the lessons of the past.”
The ongoing ethics complaint against Haley involves her conduct while being paid as a fundraiser and consultant for Lexington Medical Center and Wilbur Smith engineering firm of Columbia, respectively. The two organizations paid Haley hundreds of thousands of dollars combined before she became governor in 2010, according to the complaint.
At issue is whether Haley lobbied a state agency on behalf of Lexington Medical Center, whether she failed to properly disclose her pay and whether she failed to abstain from votes that would benefit the firm.
Haley’s attorneys have denied any wrongdoing.
Separately, The Post and Courier reported Sunday that S.C. Rep. Jim Merrill, a Daniel Island Republican, has taken nearly $160,000 since 2008 from a political action committee run by the S.C. Association of Realtors. At the same time, he sponsored and championed legislation the Realtors wanted.
House Ethics Committee staff has said Merrill is abiding by the rules.
“People may not like it, but that’s the way it is,” Merrill, a former House majority leader, said in a recent interview. “If they wanna change the rules, have at it.”
Questions about conflicts will arise as long as the Legislature is part time, said John Crangle, the executive director of government watchdog Common Cause South Carolina.
“People have other jobs because you can’t live off the legislative salary,” Crangle said. The annual legislative pay and stipend is $22,400.
Crangle’s solution involves increasing the pay of the Senate while abolishing the House of Representatives, although he acknowledges such a plan is unlikely to gain traction.
Still, the issue of lawmakers being paid by organizations that lobby in the Statehouse is “a huge thing — bigger than anyone had any idea about,” said Laurel Suggs, vice president of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.
“There is so much more to be uncovered,” said Suggs, who served on a campaign ethics task force under former Gov. Jim Hodges.
Barbara Zia, president of the league, agreed.
“South Carolina has weak ethics laws, and we need them strengthened,” Zia said. “It’s going to take public pressure to make these changes.”
Reach Renee Dudley at 937-5550 or on Twitter @renee_dudley.