Few people carry as much clout at Charleston International or know as much about the inner workings of the state’s busiest airport as Arnold Goodstein.
The politically connected Summerville lawyer has worked as Charleston County Aviation Authority’s chief legal counsel for nearly 20 years, all on a year-to-year verbal agreement.
Today, the 13-member airport board is expected to debate whether to give him a long-term contract and a $30,000-a-year raise on top of his $235,000-a-year flat fee.
The contract issue has raised eyebrows, from board members to community members, for different reasons.
Some board members, such as former judge Larry Richter and former U.S. Rep. Tommy Hartnett, say the Aviation Authority needs to follow its procurement policy and seek competitive bids if the agency wants to enter a contract for legal services.
Others, including John Steinberger, who is chairman of Charleston County’s Republican Party, have questioned how Goodstein can be classified as totally disabled by the government — making him eligible for special tax breaks and other benefits — and still be able to work in a six-figure-a-year job.
Goodstein dismissed those questions in a recent interview.
“I’m certainly able to practice law,” he said.
The issue has been simmering since November, when the legal services contract came up. To help answer the question about whether to solicit bids, the Aviation Authority asked an outside lawyer as well as the S.C. attorney general.
The AG’s office Monday said the airport panel doesn’t fall under the state procurement law but under its own rules. It had no opinion on the agency’s policy.
Amy Jenkins, an employment attorney hired by the Aviation Authority, determined the agency must seek bids, according to a document obtained by The Post and Courier.
Richter said the airport should follow that determination.
“We have a public body enacting a procurement code which requires us to do a certain thing,” he said. “That’s our policy. We adopted it, and we have to live by it.”
Aviation Authority Chairman Andy Savage said he prefers a contract because he believes it’s the best way to settle any disputes between the board and its legal counsel. He also thinks the current flat-fee arrangement gives Goodstein no financial incentive to hire outside help should the need arise.
“It’s a terrible way of doing business,” Savage said. “If he needs specialization, it comes out of that pot. That sets up a terrible ethical dilemma.”
Savage said he has no issue with Goodstein serving as the attorney, especially with the airport knowledge he has amassed over 20 years. He said a contract would avoid the problems the authority encountered last year when its top executive, who didn’t have a contract, abruptly resigned.
“This is a foundational problem that has to be addressed,” Savage said. “We are pulling this organization out of the 1970s and the 1980s. Just because things were done with a pat on the back in 1983, it’s not acceptable in 2014. We are too sophisticated to be that way now.”
Richter, who has been vocal about the legal services issue, said he isn’t opposed to retaining Goodstein.
“My concern is not with the legal abilities of Arnold Goodstein,” he said. “Those are manifestly well-regarded. My issue is with the process.”
Hartnett, who owns a real estate business, also argued the board should seek bids. “I don’t understand why we can’t do things exactly right,” he said.
Goodstein said he would prefer a contract but will ask the board to keep the existing arrangement so that it, at least for this year, can concentrate on more pressing matters. Savage said he won’t support the status quo.
“It just puts us back to where we have been,” Savage said.
On Goodstein’s disability, board members said they don’t question whether he’s up to the job of outside legal counsel.
“He is fully capable to do mentally or physically what we ask him to do,” Savage said.
The issue came up after Goodstein, 69, was deemed totally disabled by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2012. That exempted him from paying property taxes on his home and two cars, and it provided him about $1,200 more in monthly benefit payments. Starting last year, Goodstein and his wife, Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein, didn’t have to pay about $7,000 a year in property taxes on their $755,000 home in Summerville, according to tax records.
Statewide, 13,837 veterans claim the exemption, S.C. Department of Revenue spokeswoman Samantha Cheek said. Veterans classified as 100 percent disabled “as a result of a service-connected disability” are eligible under state law.
Goodstein’s benefit payment also increased to more than $3,000 a month after he was deemed totally disabled, according to the VA’s pay schedule.
Goodstein served in the Army during the Vietnam War, where he received two Bronze Stars. He suffers from the lingering effects of Agent Orange, a defoliant, and other ailments. He walks with a cane and has arthritic knees and heart problems. His right hip has been replaced.
Goodstein, who served in the S.C. House from 1971-74 and the Senate from 1975-80, was a cavalry officer and adviser to the South Vietnamese Army during the war. He was wounded during the Tet Offensive. He has scars from shell fragments or bullets on his hand and head.
Though classified as 100 percent disabled, Goodstein can still work for the airport under VA rules.
“There are a number of people out there who are 100 percent disabled and have gainful employment,” said Charles Kimberger, co-assistant director of Veterans Benefit Administration in Columbia. “It would not impact their task at hand or job at hand.”
The VA classifies people with benefits into two groups. In one, a veteran is deemed totally disabled and can’t work.
In the other, the total disability percentage is determined by calculating military-related injuries, but people in this group are still allowed to work, said Woody Middleton, who also works with the benefit administration.
“They may have a bad knee, back, elbow or shoulder. Those disabilities combined can get them up to the 100 percent rate,” Middleton said.
Goodstein added: “People who have lost both legs might be totally disabled but can still work.”
He said his injuries did not total enough to qualify him as 100 percent disabled until 2012.
In addition to his physical ailments, Goodstein also has had his share of financial problems.
He filed for personal bankruptcy in 2010 when his home-building enterprise collapsed. Much of his $61 million in debt stemmed from loans he guaranteed. He was discharged from the case in 2011, but the bankruptcy claims haven’t been completely settled.
The issue about Goodstein’s longtime role at the airport has spilled outside the boardroom.
Steinberger, the Charleston County GOP chairman, requested information in December related to Goodstein’s employment with the Aviation Authority. He said Wednesday he did so strictly as a private citizen. The information he was seeking included the nature of Goodstein’s work, whether he operated under a contract and how much he was paid, among other items. He also asked about Goodstein’s disability and whether it interferes with his work.
Savage, the board chairman, has blasted Steinberger for questioning the legitimacy of Goodstein’s military service. Savage called it “a cowardly attempt to cast discredit” on Goodstein and called for an apology. He also said Steinberger could review whatever work records the authority has.
Steinberger called Savage’s reaction “completely out of line for any public official.”
He also stood by his questions about Goodstein’s disability.
“I think it’s wrong for someone who claims a 100 percent disability and doesn’t pay property tax to be able to carry out a full-time job with that amount of pay,” he said.
Steinberger said his motives are not political.
“This is about good accountable government and making sure taxpayers are getting their money’s worth,” he said.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.