By RON AIKEN
Property Leatherman owns could benefit from Hwy 51 widening
For years now, Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence) has filed nearly identical Statements of Economic Interest (or at least he has since 2013 when he decided to follow the law and include his minority ownership in Florence Concrete after a decade of not doing so).
His two main reported income sources from 2013 to 2015 remain the Senate ($29,094.57) and the state retirement system ($36,148.92), with a splash of board per diems thrown in – a dinner here, a speaking fee there.
Also consistent are his business interests: the aforementioned Florence Concrete (which benefits from DOT contracts to the tune of $11 million since 2012), ERA Leatherman Realty (of which his realtor wife, Jean, is the agent of record), and Leacon Builders of Florence, of which he is the president and owner.
In Leatherman’s most recent filing submitted March 17, however, he has added one more interest that he previously has failed to disclose: He is a founding partner in East Florence Properties, LLC, est. 2005.
Why is that important? Aside from the ethical questions of failing to record a source of income for a decade (again), the list of his partners in the business raise serious questions of influence, motives and potential conflicts of interest.
Besides Leatherman, two of the four other founding partners are individuals Leatherman has voted for years to keep in their Board of Trustee positions at the University of South Carolina (Mark W. Buyck and Eddie Floyd), and another (Reynolds Williams) is his direct appointment to the S.C. Retirement System Investment Commission board. The fourth member is Bubby Floyd, Eddie Floyd’s son.
That means Leatherman has failed for a decade to disclose his financial ties to trustees of a university whose budget appropriations he helps write as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, whose largest bond projects he approves as chairman of the Joint Bond Review Committee, and who has approval power over all projects within the broad oversight of the State Fiscal Affairs Authority (formerly the Budget and Control Board).
That influence was on display at the Budget and Control Board’s meeting on March 5, 2014 when, with Leatherman’s backing, the University of South Carolina was able to secure a controversial exemption from state procurement code that allowed $70 million, 10-year, no-bid contract with IBM. In the minutes of the meeting Treasurer Curtis Loftis and Rep. Brian White (R-Anderson) expressed strong opposition to the deal, but Comptroller Richard Eckstrom indicated that he decided to support it in part because Leatherman had gotten the exemption “drawn tightly.” That motion carried 3-2.
For members of East Florence Properties, the influence and benefits of Leatherman’s financial stake don’t stop with approving big-time university deals. He also can appoint partners to positions of incredible power.
In 2005 – the same year as the founding of East Florence Properties – Leatherman appointed his business partner Reynolds Williams to the powerful S.C. Retirement Systems Investment Commission, which oversees $29.2 billion in total assets. As chairman of that body in 2013, Williams faced a SLED investigation and criticism over a $22 million investment by the retirement system into a timber company that did business with Williams’ law firm and resulted in his firm receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits. In that case no charges were filed, the Attorney General’s office declined to prosecute, and the S.C. Ethics Commission faulted him only for giving the appearance of impropriety. Williams remains on the commission, which oversees $29 billion in total assets.
Earlier this year in an extensive review of property tax records in Florence and surrounding counties, The Nerve found that Leatherman and his wife owned real estate valued at more than $2 million that was not disclosed on his SEIs, including $500,000 worth of residential holdings under yet another business (Hugh Leatherman LLC) that he does not list on his SEIs. That review did not take into account his newly disclosed ownership in East Florence Properties.
A search of Florence County property taxes shows one current real estate holding for East Florence Properties, a 58-acre parcel at the intersection of Hwy 327 and Hwy. 321 purchased in 2005 for $1.8 million. The site connects directly from Hwy 301 eight miles south to Hwy 51, the controversial Pamplico Highway that Leatherman wants to broaden to five lanes at cost to taxpayers of $144.4 million. The site also is less than two miles on Hwy. 301 from Francis Marion University, where Leatheman’s daughter was just elected to the Board of Trustees in a brazen flash of nepotism.
Property tax and sales records available through the Florence County Clerk of Court show that East Florence Properties sold off portions of the lot for $574,062 in 2013 (2.33 acres, now a Bojangles) and $500,000 in 2015 (1.52 acres for a RaceWay gas station) for a total profit of $1.074 million off the original investment.
A check Wednesday with the Florence County Assessor’s office showed the property currently is valued at $1.02 million and is for sale.
The listing agent is ERA Leatherman Realty, which is listing the 58.15 acre site at $3.5 million – more than triple what the county assessor believes it is worth.
Messages left at Leatherman’s Senate office and Florence home were not returned.
A For Sale sign on the lot with ERA Leatherman Realty’s information boasts a traffic count of 27,000 cars daily. With the widening of Hwy. 51 to accommodate increased industry, that number – and the lot’s value – will almost certainly rise.
Reach Aiken at (803) 254-4411 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC.