Farm Industry Ex-Lobbyist Says He Hasn’t Crossed Ethical Line

March 5, 2014

Investigative Reports

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Rep. Russell OttThe South Carolina Farm Bureau, considered the state’s most influential farm organization, has not been secret about its opposition to state legislation that would regulate large water withdrawals by farmers.

It also recently waged a related public-relations campaign to counter a push by environmental groups to limit proposed large withdrawals of the Edisto River’s south fork by Walther Farms, a Michigan-based agribusiness, for a potato farming operation in Aiken and Barnwell counties.

Freshman state Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, has expressed views similar to the Farm Bureau’s position on those topics to fellow lawmakers and lobbyists in recent weeks, sources told The Nerve. Ott for years was a paid lobbyist and more recently was the full-time state legislative affairs coordinator with the Farm Bureau, and continues to draw income from the organization as a contract consultant, The Nerve’s review found.

State law (Section 2-17-15 of the S.C. Code of Laws) bans lawmakers, the governor, other elected state constitutional officers and state agency directors appointed by the governor, as well as their immediate family members, from serving as lobbyists while the officials are in office and for one year after they leave their public positions.

“Lobbyist” is defined under state law in part as a person who is employed or retained by another person to “influence by direct communication with public officials or public employees … the action or vote of any member of the General Assembly, the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, or any other statewide constitutional officer concerning any legislation.”

Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve, Ott, who was elected last year to fill the seat of his father, Harry Ott, who resigned to become the state executive director of the federal Farm Service Agency, said he wasn’t pushing the Farm Bureau’s agenda on either the proposed legislation regulating water withdrawals or the Walther Farms project.

“I’m pushing my position, and I think that position would benefit the residents of (House) District 93,” he said.

“I do believe we have a lack of agriculture legislators up here in the State House, and I believe I have agricultural expertise,” he added, noting he has been involved with farming his “whole life.”

Asked if he were concerned that his position with the Farm Bureau could give the appearance of a conflict of interest with the water-regulation bill and the Walther Farms project, Ott replied: “I don’t want to speculate as to what anyone appears to everyone else. I’m very comfortable about the fact that I’m not doing anything that is a conflict of interest.”

“It’s something I want to be most careful with,” he added, noting he consulted with the State Ethics Commission and the House Ethics Committee about his prior role as a lobbyist before he was elected to his House seat.

Longtime Lobbyist

In South Carolina, the House and Senate Ethics committees are authorized under state law to police their respective members for ethical violations, though critics contend their oversight is lax and that there are plenty of loopholes in the law.

An ethics-reform bill (H. 3945) is being considered this legislative session, though the House and Senate likely will have to work on resolving differences between their respective versions of the legislation.

Ott’s online legislative biography lists him as a “businessman” and as having worked for the Farm Bureau from 2004 to last year, though it doesn’t specify his work responsibilities. He told The Nerve that he began lobbying for the organization shortly after he was hired and ceased doing so before his election in October to comply with the state law banning him from holding the dual positions.

Until he ran for office, Ott said he was a full-time employee with the Farm Bureau, holding the titles of state and local government liaison, and the state legislative affairs coordinator in the last several years before his election.

According to online disclosure forms filed with the State Ethics Commission, Ott’s annual pay as a lobbyist from 2008 through 2012 was about $35,500 for most of those years. He told The Nerve that he was paid more as a full-time employee, though he was required under state law to list only the lobbying portion of his total pay.

The Farm Bureau’s website (www.scfb.org) lists Ott as working in the organization’s “Promotion & Education Division.” His official title is “Young Farmer & Rancher Program Consultant”; the staff directory lists an office phone number and email address for him.

Ott told The Nerve he is working part-time as a consultant during the legislative session, and that the Farm Bureau is currently his consulting firm’s only client.

The Farm Bureau on its website describes itself as a “family-oriented federation of 47 county chapters – an active organization led by volunteer grassroots farmers,” and that its mission is to “promote agricultural interests in the State of South Carolina and to optimize the lives of those involved in agriculture while being respectful to the needs and concerns of all citizens in our state.”

In a written response Tuesday to The Nerve, Larry McKenzie, assistant to David Winkles, the Farm Bureau’s president, said Ott is “not an employee of the SC Farm Bureau Federation; however, we have contracted with him for specific services not related to the General Assembly.”

“He is considered a contract employee and only listed on the Web site under the staff directory because of his contract to coordinate this (Young Farmer and Rancher) program,” McKenzie said. “He officially resigned employment from our organization in compliance with the state ethics laws.”

As a former lobbyist, Ott “did promote our legislative agenda with members of the S.C. General Assembly,” McKenzie said, adding, “Since his election, Mr. Ott has not had a role in developing or lobbying on our behalf.”

The Farm Bureau has a separate, five-member “Government Relations Division,” according to its website. State Ethics Commission records show the organization has two registered lobbyists this year, including Gary Spires, the division’s director.

Ott said although he hasn’t done so yet, “I can foresee in the future taking a position that isn’t aligned with what the Farm Bureau believes.”

Meetings with Lawmakers

Ott confirmed to The Nerve that he talked with Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston and the author of the water-regulation legislation (S. 970), about Campsen’s bill, but said that discussion wasn’t done on behalf of the Farm Bureau.

“I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest for those legislators to work on legislation related to their industries if you’re just talking about the industry as a whole,” Ott said.

Campsen told The Nerve on Tuesday that Ott “expressed his lack of support” for S. 970 during their discussion, but didn’t specifically mention the Farm Bureau’s position on the issue.

Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve, Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg and a co-sponsor of Campsen’s bill, said Ott discussed Campsen’s bill with him “a couple of times,” though he couldn’t recall details, adding, “I’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of people about that bill.”

The Farm Bureau has sponsored a website (www.savescfarmers.com) titled, “Save SC Farmers,” asking viewers to sign an online petition to “tell legislators to stand with farmers against negative attacks and to oppose S. 970.”

Campsen told The Nerve the intent of his bill is not to interfere with farming operations in South Carolina but rather to protect the state’s waterways, noting, “Farmers don’t own that water; the people of South Carolina own that water.”

The bill, introduced on Jan. 23, would require farming operators to get a state permit to withdraw surface water in an amount that exceeds 5 percent of the “safe yield at the point of withdrawal,” and is more than 425 million gallons in any given month. The bill is assigned to the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens.

Campsen introduced his bill after public outcry over the Walther Farms potato-farming project in Aiken and Barnwell counties, which, as proposed initially, would have allowed the agribusiness to siphon up to 9.6 billion gallons annually from the Edisto River’s south fork to irrigate two tracts totaling about 5,200 acres, according to media reports. Under a legal settlement reached in January between Walther Farms and an environmental organization called Friends of the Edisto, the company agreed to reduce its originally proposed water withdrawals by two-thirds.

The Farm Bureau on its “Save SC Farmers” website defends Walther Farms as a “family owned farm that located in states like South Carolina and Georgia because they are leading stewards of the environment,” and contends that despite the legal settlement in the case, “paid lobbyists” for the project’s opponents are “still pushing an ever expanding agenda at the state house!”

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Rebecca Haynes, a lobbyist with the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, confirmed she spoke with Ott about the Walther Farms project and other “surface water stuff,” though she declined to comment about whether he was advocating the Farm Bureau’s position in any of those matters.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.