An S.C. House member was paid more than $12,500 in legislative salary and expense reimbursements from January through June, despite racking up unexcused absences for virtually all of the legislative session this year, a review by The Nerve found.
The chairman of the House Ethics Committee said this week that while he doesn’t believe Rep. Eric Bikas, R-Pickens, broke any state ethics laws, the 25-year-old first-term lawmaker should not have accepted his state pay, given his unexcused absences during session.
“I’m not saying it’s against the law, but it’s the wrong thing to do,” Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken, told The Nerve this week. “The private sector wouldn’t put up with that. … The other 123 House members and 46 senators are doing the same thing – showing up for work.”
Smith said he couldn’t recall another recent situation in which a House member missed as much session time as Bikas did without being formally excused by the House speaker, as House rules require. A Senate leader told The Nerve this week that Bikas informed him that he had growing time conflicts with his restaurant business.
Smith said Bikas’ case should be part of beginning joint discussions among the House and Senate Ethics committees, the State Ethics Commission and the S.C. Attorney General’s Office on ethics-law reforms. The group met last week; the goal is to introduce legislation in January, he said.
“We need to talk about it (Bikas’ case) when we receive this legislation,” Smith said.
The joint discussions come in the wake of a House ethics hearing into allegations that Gov. Nikki Haley engaged in illegal lobbying while a House member and pressured lobbyists and their clients to make donations to a hospital foundation where she previously worked. The House Ethics Committee in June dismissed all seven charges against Haley, who repeatedly denied the allegations.
Smith declined to say whether Bikas is the subject of a House ethics investigation. But he noted, citing recently amended House rules allowing for more transparency in that chamber’s ethics investigations, that there have been no probable-cause findings by the Ethics Committee that Bikas broke any ethics laws.
Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York and the Senate Ethics Committee chairman, told The Nerve this week he is not aware of any state law that prohibits a legislator from receiving his legislative salary despite having unexcused absences during session.
Contacted initially by phone last Thursday, Bikas, who is listed in House records as a restaurateur, agreed to be interviewed by The Nerve, though he said he had a scheduling conflict then and likely couldn’t be interviewed until several days later.
Three times this week, The Nerve contacted a Greenville-area restaurant that Bikas operates, called the Bikas Drive In, but was told each time by another person answering the phone that Bikas was busy working and was unavailable.
In the last phone conversation, the person asked that any subsequent requests be sent via email, but Bikas did not respond to The Nerve’s follow-up written request, either.
Many Unexcused Absences
A review by The Nerve of House Journal records found that Bikas, who was elected in 2010 to his first two-year term, missed 59, or 92 percent, of 64 session days this year. After Jan. 25, he didn’t attend any session days.
Only one of his absences was excused by House Speaker Bobby Harrell, records show.
State payroll records showed that Bikas was paid $12,567.26 from Jan. 10 – the first day of session – through June 25. Of the total, slightly more than $11,000, or about 88 percent, was listed as payroll payments; the remainder was split among set reimbursement amounts for hotel, meal, mileage and postage costs.
Smith told The Nerve that lawmakers typically are paid their annual $10,400 base salary, minus taxes and other deductions, in two installments: most of it in the first week of session and the remainder in March.
Bikas was issued a payroll check for $4,826.36 on Jan. 11 – the second day of session – and another payroll check for $1,587.81 on March 16, state payroll records show.
As The Nerve has reported previously, besides their annual $10,400, lawmakers can receive up to $12,000 a year in “in-district” expense payments, which is considered income, even though state law requires counties to fund local legislative delegation offices.
In his first year in office in 2011, Bikas received a total of $28,314, according to House records obtained earlier by The Nerve under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. Of that amount, $18,400 was his base salary and in-district payments; the remaining balance was mostly reimbursements for hotel, meal and mileage costs while in session.
Bikas did not report his 2011 base salary or any in-district payments last year on his latest statement of economic interests form, which was filed on April 15, State Ethics Commission online records show. State law requires public officials to report their sources of public income from the previous calendar year.
Bikas did report a total of $2,463 in income and benefits on his income-disclosure form filed in April 2011, most of which was in-district payments, records show.
Promising Start, Rough Finish
Bikas in November 2010 easily won the House seat of Rex Rice, a Republican who vacated his position in an unsuccessful bid to win the 3rd Congressional District seat. For the first four months of the 2011 legislative session, Bikas had perfect attendance at the State House during 42 regular meeting days, though he was late six times, House Journal records show.
In her first “report card” on legislators, which was released in October, Haley gave the freshman lawmaker an “A,” based on nine categories. Legislative records show that Bikas didn’t author any legislation, though he co-sponsored 42 bills, nine of which passed, including ones dealing with voter identification and tort reform.
But from May 4, 2011, through July 26, 2011, Bikas missed nine of 19 session days; and none of those absences was excused by the House speaker, House Journal records show.
In June 2011, the House approved plans to redraw their own districts, based on population changes as reflected in the 2010 U.S. Census. That project, known as reapportionment, put Bikas in the same district as Republican Rep. Dan Cooper of Anderson County, the then-chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
Cooper retired last year before his term ended; his seat was filled by Joshua Putnam, a 23-year-old Republican. Bikas turns 26 on Aug. 13.
“I think when his (Bikas’) district evaporated, his interest evaporated with it,” longtime Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens and the county delegation chairman, told The Nerve when contacted this week.
Still, Martin said even after Bikas quit coming to the State House this year, Bikas told him he was planning to return, adding, “I was real surprised he didn’t go back.”
Asked what reason Bikas gave him for his absences during session, Martin replied, “He indicated to me he really had problems leaving his business – more so than he realized.”
Under House rules, all members “shall be within the House Chamber during its sittings unless excused or necessarily prevented”; and that the House speaker “may excuse any member from attendance on the House and its committees for any stated period upon reason shown, and such excused absence shall be noted in the Journal.”
Neither Harrell, R-Charleston, nor House Clerk Charles Reid responded to written questions this week from The Nerve about Bikas’ case.
Martin, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman and former Senate Rules Committee chairman, said Bikas called him several times during his absence, mainly with questions about how to help constituents. Bikas didn’t attend any of several invited events for the county delegation during session, he said.
Bikas’ district covers the Easley area in the southeast corner of Pickens County and a smaller section of Greenville County. Contacted this week, longtime Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville and the Greenville County delegation chairman, said although Bikas hasn’t attended delegation meetings or functions this year, “My experience with Eric is all positive – except for his absences, which is curious.”
“He is one of the nicest young men I’ve ever met,” said Fair, the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee chairman.
But that doesn’t excuse his actions, if you ask Smith.
“The right thing for him to do is resign,” Smith said. “He is not representing his constituents.”
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.