No regulation for PACs

Political action committees — organizations that promote candidates, ballot initiatives and legislation — have not been regulated in South Carolina since 2010.

That’s when a U.S. district judge in Florence ruled that the state’s definition of a committee, which is another name for a PAC, was too vague.

Because the groups are not legally regulated, they aren’t required to report their funding or expenses to the State Ethics Commission. Although some groups continue to report, there are no consequences for inaccurate reporting.

Legislation has been filed this year that would ban PACs connected to politicians. State senators last year banned such groups among their members.

Diane Knich

The advertising firm Rawle Murdy worked to push the completion of Interstate 526.

Was it paid for that work? If so, who footed the bill?

Some opponents of the extension said they think it was paid, and by the Palmetto Leadership Council.

State ethics officials said that, even if that’s true, there is nothing illegal about it because the state has no law governing political action committees, and hasn’t since 2010.

The Palmetto Leadership Council is a political action committee affiliated with House Speaker Bobby Harrell, who was a strong supporter of the road project.

In its report to the State Ethics Commission, the PAC included a $23,000 payment to Rawle Murdy in October, describing it as an election expense. That description raised eyebrows among project opponents, because Rawle Murdy rarely does electoral work.

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, said he and 11 other senators hope to change the lack of transparency with PACs, and the group filed a bill Wednesday that included regulations for the committees.

If passed, Hayes said, it would outlaw leadership PACs, which are groups connected to specific politicians. It also would provide a clear definition of such groups, and would include a requirement that they report contributions and expenditures to the State Ethics Commission.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, one of the bill’s sponsors, said he supports the plan because PACs recently have spent large sums of money on campaigns opposing him and other candidates in elections. But he and the other candidates still don’t know who financed those campaigns because the committees don’t have to release any financial information.

“At the very least, it makes sense to require disclosure, where the money is coming from and where it is being spent,” Martin said.

Pushing for 526

The Palmetto Leadership Council has described itself as “a non-candidate committee that is dedicated to electing and retaining business friendly leaders in South Carolina’s General Assembly.”

The group’s website has not been available since last week. Director India Hazzard Pickelsimer did not return calls or emails for comment Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.

Harrell spokesman Greg Foster referred questions to the PAC.

Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League, opposes the completion of Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands, which Charleston County Council approved in December with a 5-4 vote.

Beach said he thinks it’s likely that the PAC paid Rawle Murdy to launch a public relations effort to drum up support for I-526.

Beach also said that state and local leaders who supported the road project increased efforts to promote it in the summer and fall. Rawle Murdy was part of those efforts, he said. So the timing of the company’s work was consistent with an October payment.

The PAC is supposed to be about leadership, Beach said. “It’s not the Palmetto Council to Promote Interstate Extensions.”

Firm mum on payment

Rawle Murdy President Bruce Murdy acknowledged that he did work for the PAC, for which he was paid about $23,000. But he would not say what sort of work he did, referring such questions to the PAC.

Murdy also said he did work to promote I-526, a project he supported. But he would not say whether he was paid for that work. He acknowledged that his company rarely does electoral work.

Johns Island resident Rich Thomas, a member of the opposition group Nix 526, said he also wants to know who, if anyone, paid Rawle Murdy for its work on I-526.

Thomas attended a news conference in July in Charleston County offices, where a panel of high-powered state and local leaders, including Harrell, gathered to make presentations on why they thought the extension of I-526 was important.

Thomas and other residents initially were told by Rawle Murdy employees that they wouldn’t be allowed in the room, he said. But County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor stepped in and opened the meeting to the public. “Rawle Murdy was involved when they were trying to exclude citizens,” Thomas said. “I wondered who was paying them.”

Officials from Charleston County and the city of Charleston have said they didn’t pay Rawle Murdy to work on I-526.

A free-for-all

Ethics Commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood said the state hasn’t had a law governing PACs since 2010. That’s when a federal court found the state’s PAC law unconstitutional because it inadequately defined a committee. Such groups now essentially remain unregulated, she said. “They don’t have to report. They don’t have to do anything. And what they report could be complete fiction.”

Hazelwood said it’s possible that the General Assembly this year could approve new rules for PACs. But for now, such groups aren’t required to submit anything to the commission, she said, although some do report. “They can lie about it, not lie about it, whatever,” she said. “Right now, it’s a free-for-all.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.