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Powerful Legislator Travels through Revolving Door

One of the most powerful members of the S.C. General Assembly has traversed the revolving door.

Dan Cooper, former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is now a principal in Parker Poe Consulting. Providing lobbying and other services and specializing in state government issues, the firm is a wholly owned subsidiary of the powerful Parker Poe law firm of the Carolinas.

Cooper, a longtime Republican representative of Anderson County in the Upstate region of South Carolina, resigned from his House seat per the end of this year’s regular legislative session.

In his new job, he’ll be making money helping clients deal with the Legislature.

In so doing, Cooper passes through what’s known as the revolving door – a metaphor applied to lawmakers who leave their legislative posts only to return to the State House as lobbyists and legislative monitors and so forth.

(There’s a revolving door in Congress, too – and a much bigger one at that.)

In Cooper’s case, he is not a registered lobbyist – at least, not yet, as state law forbids him from engaging in lobbying activity for one year from the time he resigned from the Legislature.

That was June 29.

Known as a “cooling-off” period, the one-year restriction is spelled out in section 2-17-15 of the state Ethics Act. It means, for all practical purposes, that Cooper cannot lobby during the 2012 legislative session, because the annual session is over by then.

However, as of June 29 next year, Cooper could legally register as a lobbyist and begin doing what lobbyists do.

Efforts to reach Cooper on Friday and Monday on his cell phone and at Parker Poe Consulting were unsuccessful.

The consulting firm is located on the 14th floor in a high-rise across the street from the State House, two floors below the S.C. Department of Commerce headquarters.

At the beginning of this year, 35 states had a cooling-off period of one duration or another on their books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most of the limitations are for one year, although a handful of states have two-year bans.

In the 2009 legislative session, former state Sen. Mick Mulvaney, a Lancaster County Republican now serving in Congress, sponsored a bill to extend South Carolina’s mandatory cooling-off time from one year to five years.

That would be the longest in the nation.

Mulvaney’s bill garnered bipartisan support among seven Senate co-sponsors en route to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But the committee, chaired by Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, never took up the legislation, and it died at the end of that session.

Cooper tendered his resignation on April 27 in a two-paragraph letter to House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

The letter, which is printed in the May 3 edition of the House Journal, says:

“It is with some sadness that I write this letter. I have truly been blessed to serve in this body for twenty-one years and a double blessing to serve as Chairman of Ways and Means for the past six years. As you know, I have been around this institution since I was thirteen years old, as a member or the son of a member.

“However, the time has come for me to turn the page and spend more time with my family and help prepare for the future of my children, and so, I hereby tender my resignation as the Chairman for Ways and Means and from the South Carolina House, effective on June 29, 2011, at noon.”

A close legislative confidant of Cooper, Rep. Brian White, succeeds him as Ways and Means chairman. Like Cooper, White is a Republican from Anderson County; and he works at Cooper’s former place of business, Capstone Insurance Services.

Although Cooper cannot yet join the ranks of State House lobbyists – who are legion – he nonetheless made clear his new career path in an Aug. 1 news release posted on the Parker Poe Consulting website.

“I look forward to putting my experience and knowledge about the legislative process, in general, and the appropriations process, in particular, to work in assisting businesses and organizations with their dealings with the General Assembly and our state agencies,” Cooper said in the release.

Indeed, when it comes to the revolving door at the State House, Cooper is hardly your everyday lawmaker turned lobbyist in waiting.

In his committee chairmanship, Cooper navigated the highest plains of state government power.

In addition to originating the annual state budget, the House Ways and Means panel also writes South Carolina’s tax laws and many, if not most, of the state’s many and varied economic development incentives deals.

Moreover, the committee chairman automatically occupies one of five seats on the Budget and Control Board, which exercises sweeping authority over state finances.

Likewise under state law, the Ways and Means chairman appoints five members of the Joint Bond Review Committee, a special legislative panel that helps oversee state construction projects and the issuing of bonds to pay for them.

In an Associated Press story published April 30 in the Charleston Post and Courier, Cooper said he was resigning to help care for his 87-year-old mother and to focus on making money to pay for college for his two school-age children.

John Crangle, director of the good-government group Common Cause of South Carolina, says he can understand that reasoning. But he says it puzzles him that Cooper resigned midway through his latest two-year term. “As a general rule legislators don’t do that.”

Still, rather than any cooling-off concerns, Crangle says it worries him more that serving in the General Assembly is becoming an increasingly unappealing and unaffordable option such that it does not attract high-caliber public servants.

“We’re getting loaded up with mediocrity,” he says.

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.

Ethics General Assembly Lobbying