Politics doesn't just make strange bedfellows. It can make strange enemies too.
The race to fill the state Senate seat once held by South Carolina's most influential official pits two moderate Charleston lawyers — once friends, colleagues, fishing buddies — against each another.
Supporters of Democrat Paul Tinkler are talking about how Republican Paul Thurmond made $100,000 lobbying for a sale of parkland to Charleston County shortly after he left County Council. Thurmond's camp is noting that a Tinkler adviser was behind a lawsuit to try to kick Thurmond off the ballot.
The two are facing off in the race for state Senate District 41, an area that stretches from James Island to Summerville. The seat formerly was held by Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, who was the powerful Senate president pro tempore before resigning to become lieutenant governor.
Tinkler supporters have questioned Thurmond's involvement in a $4.1 million deal last year to buy the 400-acre Bulow Hunt Club tract.
Thurmond lobbied his former council colleagues in a deal criticized for its haste — and whether the county paid too high a price. Council Chairman Teddie Pryor, who supported the purchase, said there were “flaws on both sides” but that Thurmond's involvement didn't help speed it through.
Thurmond said he was upfront with council colleagues as far as his involvement as a lobbyist, and he checked to see if he should register with the State Ethics Commission. (He was told no.)
“The project speaks for itself,” he said. “It's a wonderful location that has a lot to offer to the community, a lot of uniqueness to the community. ... I did everything within the law.”
Tinkler said this week the deal is relevant to the Senate 41 race.
“Mr. Thurmond pocketed $100,000 in taxpayers' money for pushing through a land deal that The Post and Courier and others have questioned,” Tinkler said. “This is why I am running for Senate: to bring about reforms so that politicians will no longer be able to consider this business as usual.”
County Councilman Herb Sass, a Republican and an appraiser, opposed the deal at the time, questioning whether $4.1 million was too high a price for property that sold for $1.2 million in 2003.
Tom O'Rourke, director of the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, said politics was involved.
“At the end of the day, somebody decided to pay Paul Thurmond $100,000, and for that, Paul got County Council to circumvent their normal procedures,” he said. “There's nothing illegal. It's something we advised against and didn't want to do, but it happened.”'
Thurmond said he is particularly disappointed that this issue is being raised because, as a County Council member from 2006 to 2010, he went above and beyond to address ethical questions, even asking the Clerk of Council to submit a list of businesses and individuals involved in upcoming votes so he could circulate them around his firm to avoid any conflict of interest.
He said he also supports ethics reforms, including establishment of a “cooling off period” that would restrict officials from lobbying former colleagues for a set time period after they leave office. He also favors greater requirements for registering local lobbyists.
“That's really the litmus test — how did you perform as an elected official? — and I believe I acted beyond reproach as an elected official,” he said. “When I'm a citizen, I should be allowed to go out and seek opportunities for the benefit of my firm and for the benefit of my family. Why not do that? What's wrong with that?”
Thurmond said his share amounted to 0.25 percent of the deal, and he purposefully had it disclosed on the closing statement, rather than trying to route the money through an LLC or another lawyer's account.
Thurmond, in turn, has criticized Tinkler's efforts to keep him off the ballot.
George Tempel, former Charleston County Democratic Party chairman, filed a suit against Thurmond this year, alleging Thurmond should be kicked off the ballot because he failed to file a paper copy of his Statement of Economic Interest. It was the same failure that knocked more than 200 candidates off S.C. ballots this year.
Thurmond fought the lawsuit, arguing his service as a part-time prosecutor made him exempt. A circuit judge ruled him ineligible, but in a blow to Tempel, allowed a new GOP primary, which Thurmond won.
In a deposition, Tempel said he discussed the lawsuit with Lachlan McIntosh, a Democratic consultant who — according to Tempel — urged him to file the lawsuit.
Tempel also denied the lawsuit was politically motivated and said he didn't know Tinkler.
Tinkler said McIntosh was a paid consultant for him, but Tinkler said he discouraged such a legal challenge.
“There were apparently other people, such as George Tempel, whose wife Carol was kicked off the ballot, who felt that the same laws that applied to Carol should apply to Paul Thurmond. And so, they pursued the claim,” Tinkler said. “In the end, Mr. Thurmond's claim that he was a 'public official' was found to be without merit. Miraculously, he made it on the ballot anyway. Carol Tempel did not. Go figure.”
Thurmond said voters should consider how Democrats tried to keep voters from having a choice on Nov. 6.
“I'm not going to try to bring somebody else down to bring me up. I don't do that,” Thurmond said. “I want people to look at what I brought to the table.”
McIntosh dismissed the charge as “a totally laughable conspiracy theory ginned up by a group of elites who don't think the rules apply to them.”
Editor's note: A caption under a group photo with District 41 Senate candidate Paul Tinkler that ran with this story when it was published on Oct. 11 needs correcting. The person on the right was not Paul Thurmond, Tinkler's opponent in the Nov. 6 Senate race. Also, the photo showed members of a bocce team for a tournament to benefit the Special Olympics, and they were sponsored by Thurmond's law firm, not his campaign. The Post and Courier regrets the errors.