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Becoming an S.C. Lawmaker Ticket to Money Train for Lawyers?

For some lawyers, it pays to be a state legislator.

Nearly 30 S.C. attorney-lawmakers or law firms they worked for collectively earned more than $5.3 million in legal fees from state and local government agencies in 2011, according to The Nerve’s review of the legislators’ most recently filed income-disclosure forms.

Under state law, lawyer-legislators must disclose any public, though not private, income that they or their firms received in the previous calendar year. Those legal fees are reported on their statements of economic interests filed annually with the State Ethics Commission.

Of the 170-member S.C. General Assembly in 2011, 43, or 25 percent, were attorney-lawmakers. Among the lawyer group, 27, or about 63 percent, reported legal fees paid by, or in connection to work with, public agencies, The Nerve’s review found.

Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Dorchester, led the list, reporting $964,899 in legal fees, according to her income-disclosure form. Rounding out the top five were:

  • ·         Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York – $932,746;
  • ·         Sen. John Land, D-Clarendon – $702,693;
  • ·         Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter – $590,578; and
  • ·         Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry – $501,963

Contacted this week, Horne, Pope, Land and Smith told The Nerve that most, if not all, of their reported fees were earned by their law firms and not by them individually. Partners in law firms, however, typically share in any profits generated by the firms.

Efforts to reach Rankin were unsuccessful.

“It’s not compensation to me; I didn’t earn a million dollars,” Horne said, noting she was a contract attorney last year with a Charleston law firm that handled cases involving the state Insurance Reserve Fund (IRF), which covers liability and property claims against public agencies.

Horne said although she didn’t earn any fees last year representing clients in IRF cases, she reported the $964,899 amount received by the firm, Senn Legal, LLC, because the law required it. Contacted Tuesday, Sandra Senn said Horne was paid on a hourly basis while with her firm, noting, "She wasn't the banner carrier; she was basically doing pick-up work."

Other lawyer-lawmakers received hefty legal fees last year in connection with their work with government agencies, The Nerve’s review found.

Land, for example, reported $314,146 in fees from representing clients in state Workers’ Compensation Commission cases, which involve medical and wage claims by workers injured on the job. The remaining $388,547 in fees Land reported was split among four other attorneys in his firm, records show.

The Nerve’s review found that 15 attorney-legislators or their firms received a total of $3.15 million, or nearly 59 percent of the total $5.37 million in reported fees in 2011, from workers’ compensation cases.

“It’s a great advertisement for me,” said Land, who is retiring this year after serving more than 37 years in the Legislature, explaining his firm has attracted new clients over the years because of the income-disclosure requirement.

Land said he doesn’t believe he has received any favoritism from judges in workers' compensation cases. State law bans him from voting on appointing judges to the Workers’ Compensation Commission or on budget sections involving the commission, he said.

“Everything is above board,” Land said. “Any appearance of any kind of favoritism would be quickly routed out in the appeals process.”

He added, though, he thinks it’s ironic that while he’s prohibited from appointing judges to the commission, no state law bans him from electing numerous other judges before whom he appears in his legal practice.

South Carolina and Virginia are the only two states in which judges are elected primarily by their legislatures.

Contacted this week, Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken and chairman of the House Ethics Committee, told The Nerve that he’s not aware of any situation in which a House lawyer-lawmaker used his or her legislative position to gain an advantage in a legal case involving a public agency.

“They’re concerned about doing what’s right – most of them,” he said.

Still, Smith, who is not a lawyer, said all lawmakers, including attorney-legislators, should be required to disclose private sources of income so that their constituents can know who might be trying to influence their votes. 

Smith said representatives of the House Ethics Committee, the Senate Ethics Committee, the State Ethics Commission and the S.C. Attorney General’s Office met in July and intend to meet again soon to work on legislation for next year addressing the income-disclosure issue and other related matters.

“The public has a right to know what legislators are getting paid,” said Murrell Smith, who is not related to Roland Smith.

Murrell Smith sponsored a bill (H. 3595) last year that would have, among other things, required lawmakers to report income received from the federal government, not just state or local agencies. His bill never made it out of the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by another attorney-legislator who is retiring this year, Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland.

Of the reported $590,578 in legal fees paid in 2011 to Smith’s law firm, the single-biggest chunk –  $200,633 – derived from workers’ compensation cases, according to his income-disclosure form.

Smith said as a group, lawyer-legislators tend to report more public income than lawmakers employed in other occupations because many attorney-lawmakers practice in areas of the law that deal directly with government agencies.

Reporting outside income wouldn’t be as much of an issue if South Carolina had a full-time legislature, as do seven other states, says John Crangle, the attorney-director of Common Cause of South Carolina, a nonprofit government watchdog organization.

“The fundamental problem is that we have a part-time, amateur legislature,” Crangle said when contacted Tuesday. “Because their (legislative) salaries or compensation is so low, unless they are independently wealthy or retired, they have to have outside sources of income.”

“You not only have conflicts of interest, but you also have a huge amount of incompetence,” Crangle continued. “We need to have a full-time legislature.”

Pope, a relatively new House member, told The Nerve he doesn’t believe judges have been “throwing me a bone” because he is a lawmaker. He said he supports more income disclosure for all legislators, including lawyer-lawmakers, adding, “I want to make clear that we are fed out of the same spoon.”

Asked about the $932,746 in legal fees reported on his income-disclosure form, Pope, a former longtime prosecutor, said all of it derived from workers’ compensation cases, though he noted he didn’t handle any of those cases.

Gary Cannon, executive director of the seven-member Workers’ Compensation Commission, told The Nerve this week his agency does not keep any data on legal fees paid to attorney-legislators or their law firms. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2011, the commission received more than 67,000 cases, approximately 8,700 of which resulted in approvals by judges of attorney fees, he said.

The seven commissioners, who serve as judges, are appointed by the governor with consent of the Senate. Cannon said the commissioners must abide by the state code of judicial ethics, which bans them from showing favoritism to anyone, including lawyer-lawmakers.

“For them (commissioners) to succumb to political pressure – it’s a bad situation, and I just don’t think they do that,” he said.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

 

Ethics General Assembly Judiciary Legislation Transparency Legislative Power Trip

S.C. Workers' Compensation Commission Rep. Murrell Smith Rep. Tommy Pope Sen. Luke Rankin John Crangle Rep. Roland Smith Common Cause of South Carolina Rep. Jenny Horne Sen. John Land