Preschool program pays consultant hefty fees

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Bob McAlister cleared more than 350k from SC First Steps


South Carolina First Steps to School Readiness, an early-childhood development program funded by the state, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to a prominent political consultant over the last several years, according to documents obtained from the state Department of Education.

Between October of 2013 and July of 2016, First Steps paid $356,495 dollars to McAlister Communications, a firm owned and operated by Bob McAlister, whose “wide-ranging connections extend beyond South Carolina to the national level where he was a media consultant for George W. Bush’s 2000 South Carolina presidential campaign, Senators Strom Thurmond and Lindsey Graham, Governors Carroll Campbell and David Beasley, and many legislators,” according to its website.

McAlister has been a well-paid consultant for state Senate President pro tempore Hugh Leatherman, and has counted Governor Henry McMaster among his clients. He has also at times partnered on operations with Richard Quinn, the political consultant who has been drawn into the corruption investigation being pursued by solicitor David Pascoe.

McAlister and Quinn worked together on McMaster’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Several weeks ago, former governor Nikki Haley, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted: “In 2010 I experienced the wrath of [Quinn] and McAlister. SC consultants will do Everything to maintain control and keep the money flowing.”

In the documentation provided by the Department of Education, the First Steps payments to McAlister are designated for such things as consulting, advertising, and “Serving on or Chairing Task Force of Ed” ($128,000).

First Steps has 1,946 students enrolled statewide this year, and a budget of approximately $33 million.

On its transparency site, the office of the state comptroller general shows payments to McAlister by the Department of Education from 2013 to the present of $225,190, in categories different than the ones on the records provided by the Department of Education. That information was provided by First Steps.

The Department of Education had nothing to do with arranging or making any of the payments, said Ryan Brown, its chief communications officer. “We’re just the fiscal agent.” The payments “would have to have been approved by [First Steps’] board.”

First Steps is governed by a board of trustees, with members appointed by the governor, the speaker of the state House, and the president pro tempore of the Senate. It’s chaired by Ken Wingate, an attorney appointed by Haley.

McAlister Communications is “on a fixed-price contract through the state” with First Steps, said First Steps deputy director Dan Wuori. Asked how the firm came to be selected for the work, Wuori said, “We were seeking some support and they applied.”

McAlister, asked if he could detail any of the work he did for First Steps, said, “I don’t talk about my clients. They’ll have to speak for themselves.”

Last year, when Leatherman used McAlister Communications for campaign work, he paid the firm $602,003 for his reelection bid. The money was directed for media buys, polling, and consulting, according to public campaign records, for a seat Leatherman had held for 36 years already, when he ran unopposed in the general election and beat his two primary challengers with more than 54 percent of the vote. In that same election, Leatherman also paid Richard Quinn & Associates another $154,792 for advertising, mailing, and consulting.

Nerve stories are always free to reprint and repost. We only ask that you credit The Nerve.


  • Robert Horton

    I’m slow……why is all of this money being paid to these “consultants”.
    What’s the end game here?

    • Ms. E Smith

      Money in their pockets is their end game….

      • Edward

        Not exactly… the agency/university/company pays the consultant and the consultant makes sure their legislator clients “know about the issues” facing that agency/university/company.

        The endgame is influence and if some good old boys make some money along the way its a bonus.

        • Ms. E Smith

          Well, they wouldn’t be ‘consulting’ for free, if all they got was just influence. Money equals influence and vise versa.

  • Bible Thumper

    Finally, The Nerve is dipping its toes in the “swamp”. Good work.

  • Ms. E Smith

    Corruption has become normal (and almost expected) in America…. we’re not much better than a 3rd world country when it comes to graft of our leaders.

    • Bill

      Ironic isn’t it that every single elected official mentioned in this article is a Republican, you know the party of honesty, morals, etc…

  • Dell

    Does First Steps give still money to one of Gilda Cobb Hunters 501c3? She has 3 or 4 of them, you know

  • Ms Smith

    Bob Mcallister has bragged that the gas tax bill would not pass until he made a million dollars off of it in one year.

    Evidently, he is close, but not there yet.

  • Barney

    The First Steps board was kept in the dark as always. Do you see any mention of this contract in their minutes????

    • Andy

      This is what Legislative Audit Council said about First Steps minutes
      “During our review, we found that the board minutes did not include the complete formula or several of its changes:

      • In March 2000, the board developed the applicable funding formula.
      However, the state board minutes do not record the complete applicable
      formula. Missing from the record are the weight assignments for each
      individual factor. Only once, in 2007, are the factors and their respective
      weights recorded in the S.C. First Steps board minutes, however, the
      weights are recorded incorrectly, adding up to 125%.”
      Classic First Steps: no accountability for taxpayer money and when they do give numbers they are wrong

  • claire nettles

    And just why does this program need to be promoted by a high$$$ communications firm ? The trough just gets bigger !

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