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AT&T Spends $276,000 on Lobbying; Most in S.C. This Year

AT&T spent $276,000 trying to influence state government during this year’s legislative session, the largest outlay among hundreds of entities that hire lobbyists and lavish meals and other freebies on South Carolina lawmakers.

Employing no fewer than 14 lobbyists, AT&T far outpaced the No. 2 spender, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, which reported $183,700 in expenditures.

AT&T typically shells out big bucks to make its presence known at the State House, but $276,000 seems high, says John Crangle, director of the good-government group Common Cause of South Carolina.

“I can’t think off the top of my head what issue they may have been spending that much money on,” Crangle says. “Normally AT&T spends a substantial amount of money, just like BlueCross BlueShield, the bankers, the Hospital Association and so on.”

Indeed, coming in at No. 3 was the South Carolina Hospital Association with $147,300, followed by fourth-place Duke Energy – $138,500 – and No. 5 finisher the Municipal Association of South Carolina, $134,600.

The cash totals (rounded to the nearest $100 for this story) are listed in disclosure statements. Lobbyists and their employers, or principals, must file the forms twice annually with the State Ethics Commission.

The first filing, due June 30, covers Jan. 1 through May 31. That’s roughly equivalent to the yearly legislative session, which starts the second week of January and ends the first week of June.

The second filing, due Jan. 31, covers June 1 through Dec. 31 of the previous year.

Rounding out the top 10 in the first filing period this year were:

  1. South Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, $127,500;
  2. Waste Management of South Carolina, $110,100;
  3. Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, $107,300;
  4. South Carolina Bankers Association, $101,000; and
  5. SCANA (the parent company of South Carolina Electric & Gas), $99,300

Only a few hundred dollars elevated SCANA above the 11th-biggest spender, the South Carolina Health Care Association, which reported $99,000 in expenditures.

(Keep reading to see the rest of the top 25.)

The total amounts cover payments to lobbyists, expenses such as rental office space and supplies, events and other expenditures on public officials, paid speaking engagements, group memberships, and campaign contributions.

Some lobbyist principals spend money on all or most of those categories in trying to achieve certain outcomes in state government. Others focus their investments on paid lobbyists and a few ancillary expenses.

AT&T, for example, was one of the latter.

Of the $276,000 AT&T reported spending in the first filing period, 96.7 percent of it – $267,000 – was in payments to 14 lobbyists.

“That’s a lot of lobbyists,” observes Cathy Hazelwood, attorney for the Ethics Commission.

Still, $276,000 is a splash in the pond for AT&T, which clocked in at No. 11 on this year’s Fortune 500 list, recording more than $3.9 billion in profits in 2011, according to Fortune magazine’s tabulations.

The required filings also list who is being lobbied and on which subjects.

In AT&T’s case it was a smorgasbord: the House and Senate, the governor, lieutenant governor, Budget and Control Board, departments of Revenue and Education, the Public Service Commission and the Office or Regulatory Staff on “telecommunications and any other matters affecting” the company and “certain affiliated entities.”

To be sure, AT&T is well represented at the Capitol complex.

One of the corporation’s lobbyists is a former high-ranking legislator, Harry Cato, a Greenville Republican who served in the House from 1991 to 2010, the last two years as speaker pro tem.

Cato’s other clients this legislative session included BlueCross Blueshield of South Carolina, General Electric, State Farm and the S.C. Research Authority, according to his filings.

AT&T also retained a high-powered team of lobbyists from one of the most politically connected law firms in South Carolina – Nelson Mullins, headquartered on Main Street in Columbia.

Along similar lines, the parts of the forms that list expenditures on public officials shed some light on the ever-present behind-the-scenes workings of state government.

SCANA, for instance, reported a $136 expenditure on March 26 for “an economic development marketing trip to Toronto,” during which the corporation paid for one state employee’s lunch, dinner, cab and parking fees.

That’s a tiny amount in the big-league world of lobbying.

Here’s one with considerably more heft: The Bankers Association slapped down more than $17,200 for a legislative reception at the outset of the session in early January.

Then, toward the end of the session in late May, the Bankers Association spent nearly $1,300 on dinner for members of the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee at the upscale Mo Mo’s Bistro in Columbia.

In a couple more tidbits from the top 10 filings:

  • BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina spent $31,250 of its $183,700 in total expenditures on campaign contributions; and
  • The Municipal Association of South Carolina, which receives public funding indirectly in the form of membership dues from cities and towns, had eight registered lobbyists.

And here’s the rest of the top 25:

12. Progress Energy, $97,100;

13. South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, $93,400;

14. Republic Services of South Carolina, $90,000;

15. South Carolina Association of Counties, $88,300;

16. Belron (formerly Safelite), $86,900;

17. Norfolk Southern, $86,800;

18. Altria Client Services, $82,800;

19. State Farm, $79,000;

20. South Carolinians for Responsible Government, $78,100;

21. Horry County Solid Waste Authority, $77,500;

22. Home Builders Association of South Carolina, $71,200;

23. South Carolina Retail Association, $68,200;

24. South Carolina Chiropractic Association, $65,000; and

25. Asurion Insurance Services, $60,900.

Nerve intern Blake Welch contributed to this report.

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

State Agencies Lobbying Legislation General Assembly Ethics Accountability Transparency

S.C. Ethics Commission Harry Cato John Crangle Common Cause of South Carolina AT&T