Legislative Power Trip
As state lawmakers plan to continue debate next year whether to relinquish their self-policing powers, defendants in an ongoing ethics lawsuit involving a newly elected senator are staking out the status-quo position.
In November 2010, Dillon County voters overwhelmingly approved a proposal to have the county board of education popularly elected instead of being appointed by the county’s legislative delegation.
Ex-Sen. Robert Ford, who resigned in May amid a Senate Ethics Committee hearing into allegations that he used campaign funds for personal expenses, claims the committee “needed a sacrificial lamb and they chose me.”
Since Jan. 1 of last year, S.C. Research Authority CEO Bill Mahoney has received $108,752 in “incentive” compensation above his current annual salary of $280,000, organization records show.
At last Tuesday’s meeting of a special S.C. Senate ethics study committee, Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry and the committee chairman, said despite a local editorial calling on people to contact him to push for ethics reform, “Not one person has mentioned anything to me that’s not inside this political arena we’re in to urge me to do anything.”
Jordan Bryngelson of Ridgeville didn’t make it past the June 2012 GOP primary for the S.C. House seat held by Democratic incumbent Patsy Knight. After losing the primary, the Dorchester County Republican Party chairman said he closed his campaign account.
In the pay-raise race, the S.C. Senate is running neck and neck these days with the House.
A State Law Enforcement Division spokesman said Tuesday an investigation of S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell is “still open and ongoing,” seven months after the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – filed an ethics complaint against the Charleston Republican.
Here in the Palmetto State, S.C. Sen. Shane Martin is kind of like “Mr. Magic Man” – at least when it comes to revealing to the public what he does for a living, which just so happens to be connected to NASCAR.
An investigation by The Nerve found at least one instance where Martin's lack of transparency as a lawmaker might have allowed him to engage in an apparent conflict of interest related to his work in the racing world.
As the great-nephew of a deceased South Carolina governor, state Rep. Walt McLeod III has a family history steeped in public service and the law.
It may be hard to miss a pig in a dress, but some South Carolina legislators apparently go to great lengths to hide pork in the state budget.
Case in point: The Senate's votes last week on Gov. Nikki Haley’s vetoes of a section of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ budget for next fiscal year, which started Monday.
If you want to put on the black robe in South Carolina, it pays to have connections in the General Assembly.
Your chances are even better if you were once part of the legislative club.
Consider this ethical sticky wicket:
A state politician hires registered lobbyists as election campaign “consultants.” Some of the lobbyists' clients donate money to the politician's campaign during the period when the lobbyists acted as the politician's consultants.
Illegal? Not necessarily – at least in the Palmetto State.
While one profession lays claim to being the world's oldest, there's another that's just as ancient – midwifery.
There’s no question that state Sen. Nikki Setzler is the proud father of four children.There’s also little dispute that the Lexington County Democrat is one of South Carolina’s most influential lawmakers, having served in the Senate for more than 36 years and currently holding the title of Senate minority leader.
A $200,000 earmark in next fiscal year’s proposed state budget is a minuscule fraction of the state spending plan for 2013-14, but it’s apparently a big deal to longtime S.C. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter.
When it comes to taxpayer-funded payrolls, Eric Bedingfield might have one of the most unusual working arrangements in the United States.
S.C. Sen. Hugh Leatherman, who wields more power than most legislators, apparently is still in the driver’s seat on a bill that would direct $50 million to the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which is governed by a board that includes the Florence County Republican.
House and Senate conference committee members who met for the first time Wednesday afternoon on a bill that would restructure state government have significant differences about who should have the authority to purchase goods and services, and allow agency deficits.
With just two days left in the General Assembly’s regular session, one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers has found a way around the normal legislative process to get his funding proposal in a transportation bill.
Over the past six fiscal years, medical businesses with ties to five S.C. lawmakers collectively have received more than $10 million in Medicaid payments, The Nerve found in a review of state Medicaid records.
The referral of an ethics complaint against Sen. Robert Ford to the S.C. attorney general could reignite the push to pass a stalled ethics-reform bill in the final days of the 2013 legislative session.
For four-plus hours Thursday afternoon, the S.C. Senate Ethics Committee heard testimony – some of it fairly sensitive for a legislative hearing – alleging how over a period of four years Sen. Robert Ford used campaign funds for such things as car payments, gym memberships, adult superstore items and an erectile-dysfunction treatment drug.
The S.C. Senate’s debate on the 2013-14 budget dragged into a third week Tuesday, and it could continue another day or so as the chamber must also approve the $112.6 million Capital Reserve Fund, which lawmakers have drained in recent years for typically non-emergency purposes.
Death isn’t cheap these days.
The S.C. Senate is running out of time.
A Charleston-based pharmaceutical company led by S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell filed official paperwork with the state in April to dissolve, then reversed that decision this month for unexplained reasons, according to records obtained Monday by The Nerve.
A legislator who also is a volunteer state constable has co-sponsored a bill that would allow volunteer constables to claim a maximum state income-tax deduction of $3,000 a year.
The S.C. House and Senate Finance Committee versions of the fiscal 2014 state budget include $5 million for regional economic-development groups.
A Senate panel Tuesday scrapped major parts of a controversial House ethics-reform bill, putting investigations of lawmakers under a reconstituted State Ethics Commission and proposing tougher penalties for ethics violations.
More S.C. lawmakers in the past week have responded to the recently launched “Project Conflict Watch” by The Nerve’s parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, bringing the total number of responses to date to 25.
An investigation by The Nerve found that S.C. Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston and a member of the Charleston County Aviation Authority, has not publicly revealed airport-related businesses with ties to his uncle.
After delaying debate several times over the past week, the S.C. House took less than an hour late Tuesday afternoon to approve an amended ethics-reform bill, though two opposing lawmakers complained afterward they didn’t have time to review the changes.
Since last year, citizens and some lawmakers have pushed to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in South Carolina, ranked by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigation news organization in Washington, D.C., and several other groups as the worst state in the nation in terms of public access to information.
The South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – recently launched “Project Conflict Watch” in an effort to reverse the Palmetto State’s dubious distinction as being the only state that requires public officials to disclose just their sources of government income.
A review by The Nerve found that Greg Foster, chief spokesman for S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, has received tens of thousands of dollars in recent years from side jobs connected with Harrell.
A controversial S.C. House “ethics-reform” bill criticized for being shrouded in secrecy grew even more mysterious Thursday when House leaders delayed floor debate yet again after a secret meeting on a planned overhaul of the legislation.
Citizens would have to register as lobbyists to speak before committees of the General Assembly or state agencies under a controversial House bill that also would decriminalize many state ethics violations, representatives of citizen groups said this afternoon at a State House press conference.
It took a controversy last week over decriminalized ethics violations to underscore the point to S.C. House members that a rushed and secretive “ethics-reform” bill contained weak penalties for public officials who violate state ethics laws.
State Rep. Kit Spires, R-Lexington, denies he had any conflict-of-interest issues in sponsoring seven pharmacy-related bills since becoming a lawmaker in 2007.
Public officials would no longer face criminal penalties for many state ethics violations under an S.C. House bill that wasn’t put in writing for the public to review until Thursday evening –a week after the legislation was first announced.
An ethics-reform bill that had been a mystery until a House Judiciary subcommittee meeting Tuesday would, among other things, require lawmakers to disclose their private sources of income.
An investigation by The Nerve has found that South Carolina lawmakers typically don't reveal their private sources of income, including, for example, Sen. Hugh Leatherman, who has ties to a concrete company that has received more than $30 million in state funding since 1993.
Ethics-reform bills that would force S.C. lawmakers to change their behavior remain stuck in committees with an important deadline approaching.
The makeup of the Medical University of South Carolina’s governing board might soon include the relatives of three sitting state lawmakers, along with a legislator who left office last year.
For politicians, the difference between state and federal income-disclosure forms is like comparing routine teeth cleaning to a root-canal operation.
That O.L Thompson and Bobby Harrell are political allies is a no-brainer.
What S.C. House members likely won’t be talking about today as they begin debate on the fiscal 2014 spending plan for South Carolina is the billion-dollar-plus hidden budget.
A new government-restructuring bill in the S.C. House Representatives would move state-purchasing control to the new Department of Administration under the governor and abolish the longstanding Budget and Control Board and recently created Public Employee Benefit Authority.
Despite all the talk in the Legislature about giving the governor more control over the executive branch, South Carolina’s newest state agency is largely unaccountable to the Palmetto State’s chief executive.
Embattled House Speaker Bobby Harrell faced his colleagues for the first time Tuesday since state Attorney General Alan Wilson referred an ethics complaint to the State Law Enforcement Division on Valentine’s Day.
The Senate Finance subcommittee examining a massive government-restructuring bill would allow a Budget and Control Board-like authority to retain some of the same powers, under a bill version that goes before the full committee Tuesday.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson’s acceptance today of an ethics complaint against state House Speaker Bobby Harrell highlights conflict-of-interest weaknesses in state law dealing with the House Ethics Committee. Ashley Landess, president of the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, this afternoon filed a formal complaint against Harrell, R-Charleston, with the attorney general, whose office said it would be over to the State Law Enforcement Division.
High-ranking officials with two state pharmacy organizations in 2010 expressed concerns then that S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell was using his legislative position to help his pharmaceutical company, according to emails obtained this week by The Nerve.
Ethics experts outside South Carolina weigh in on handling of ethics case involving S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
The S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform on Monday proposed sweeping reforms to state ethics laws, which include requiring state legislators and other public officials to report their private sources of income.
The makeup of the S.C. House Ethics Committee isn’t illegal if you ask new committee Chairman Kenny Bingham, though he introduced a bill last week in response to a Nerve story that raised questions about the legality of the committee’s size.
Despite a Senate bill that would eliminate the controversial S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank as a separate state agency, that idea received no attention in a hearing Wednesday before a House budget-writing subcommittee.
The South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – is considering filing a formal ethics complaint against state House Speaker Bobby Harrell, council President Ashley Landess revealed during a hearing this morning before the S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform.
Section 11-11-90 of the state code is an inconvenient truth for the General Assembly, and thanks to a decision Thursday by a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, it will stay that way at least for now.
The makeup of the newly reorganized state House Ethics Committee violates state law, critics say.
A review by The Nerve found that all five Republican members of the S.C House Ethics Committee, which might be called on to investigate possible campaign-violation allegations involving House Speaker Bobby Harrell, each has accepted campaign contributions from a political action committee associated with Harrell.
A state senator is proposing a major overhaul of the way judges are selected in the Palmetto State, though he acknowledges his legislation faces an uphill battle in both chambers of the General Assembly.
Language that would strike an obscure state law currently being ignored by the General Assembly could be removed from a massive government restructuring bill, a state senator told The Nerve Thursday following a Senate panel hearing on the legislation.
The head of a government watchdog organization says he plans to ask the S.C. House Ethics Committee to give the state’s top prosecutor first crack at investigating House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s campaign reimbursements over the past several years.
From January through November this year, 11 Midlands senators received a total of nearly $98,000 in "subsistence" payments meant to cover hotel and food costs while the Legislature is in session, a review by The Nerve found.
Once again, the S.C. Senate has rebuffed the chance to elevate South Carolina from its status as one of the least transparent states in the nation.
Three state senators have proposed repealing a longstanding law requiring that the Legislature's budget-writing committees hold joint public hearings on the governor's proposed budget.
An S.C. House member on Tuesday reintroduced a bill proposing major reforms in the state’s open-records law, and added more enforcement teeth in his latest version.
Nerve Citizen Reporter Larry Barnett of Fort Mill shows no signs of slowing down his campaign to reform Senate rules with a new legislative session right around the corner.
In keeping with tradition, the S.C. House has not released its proposed spending plan for fiscal 2014, which starts July 1.
Incumbent Richland and Lexington County House members surveyed by The Nerve won't commit to give up "subsistence" payments meant to cover hotel and food costs during legislative sessions, despite pledges by two incoming lawmakers to do so.
The S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission nominated eight of 10 judicial candidates who had formal complaints filed against them during the screening process.
Less than a month after Gov. Nikki Haley signed a 2011 law allowing Richland County’s legislative delegation to hire a county elections director, the delegation quietly selected Lillian McBride to oversee the newly combined elections and voter registration offices at a starting salary of $85,000, records show.
The state’s top prosecutor isn’t budging from his position that the S.C. House Ethics Committee should first investigate House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s campaign reimbursements over the past several years, the longtime leader of a state government watchdog group said Thursday.
A review by The Nerve of flight logs and other records found that S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston was reimbursed for flying and driving during legislative session weeks since 2008.
Over the past year, Gov. Nikki Haley, state lawmakers, Clemson University officials and others collectively took at least 118 mostly round trips on two state-owned planes at a total taxpayer cost of more than $215,000, state flight records show.A joint investigation by The Nerve and WLTX-TV in Columbia found that no one at the state level is checking to make sure that travelers are using the planes for legitimate purposes.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson might be willing to investigate the use of campaign funds by state House Speaker Bobby Harrell, though he apparently is in no rush to do so.
The Nerve examines the role of the state grand jury in connection with a campaign-finance case involving S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
Fines and other sanctions against S.C. lawmakers are not published online and usually are not released publicly unless there is a specific request.
South Carolina is only one of two states in which its legislative leaders control the makeup of a panel that nominates judicial candidates, The Nerve found in a review of judicial screening committees nationwide.
Nerve Citizen Reporter Don Rogers discusses his views on the Delegation Watchdog Project.
Nearly two months after state lawmakers quietly slipped in an additional $2.5 million for the S.C. House chamber’s budget for this fiscal year, House leaders continue to be tight-lipped about specifics on how the tax dollars will be used.
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.
Two lawmakers typically control pay raises for legislative staffers earning at least $50,000 annually.
As of March, 32 S.C. House staffers earning at least $50,000 annually had received raises ranging from 5 percent to 55 percent compared to the previous fiscal year, according to a review by The Nerve of a state salary database and House records.
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.
Since 2007, a total of $85,500 in state tax dollars has been appropriated for a private, nonprofit group to hold annual meetings at the State House in Columbia to craft its legislative agenda for the upcoming year.
Perhaps more importantly, this section of state law mandates public hearings on the budget that the Legislature has not been conducting – thereby denying taxpayers their due input in the setting of the state’s spending priorities.
The S.C. House of Representatives is poised to receive $2.5 million more than the chamber originally requested for the fiscal year that started Sunday – a last-minute appropriation quietly approved by a state budget conference committee and signed off by the Legislature.
The selection of judges in South Carolina is controlled largely by state lawmakers, which critics contend needs to be reformed.
If the S.C. House Ethics Committee finds Gov. Nikki Haley guilty of allegations that she illegally lobbied while a member of the House, Haley would not be subject to stricter ethics penalties the House adopted in May, a government watchdog says.
The chairmen of the S.C. House and Senate Ethics committees said Wednesday they are open to discussions in their respective chambers about requiring lawmakers to declare legislative pensions on state income-disclosure forms.
This is not a Democrat or Republican issue. It is a simple matter of a fair legal interpretation.
Efforts to strength South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act were scuttled in the state Senate this week.
Lawmakers are once again seeking to funnel nearly $5 million in taxpayer funds to seven private regional economic development organizations, two of which have at least one state senator on their governing board.
A bill allowing the chairmen of the two powerful budget-writing committees in the General Assembly to serve on the S.C. Research Authority’s governing board is one step closer to becoming law.
The long-held control of county legislative delegations over county veterans' affairs officers will remain intact for at least another year.
Outside groups collectively spent more than $130,000 on lawmakers' travel in 2011, The Nerve's review of state ethics records found.
An ethics case involving Gov. Nikki Haley already has been the apparent source of a change toward more openness in the S.C. House, and it could lead to additional reforms in the chamber.
Although South Carolina has a relatively small Turkish population and no major trade with Turkey, eight S.C. senators apparently thought it was important enough to go on a 10-day, all-expenses-paid trip to the Middle Eastern country last year.
The S.C. House last week danced a conspicuous ethics two-step, in what one State House watchdog describes as exactly the kind of bull pucky that makes taxpayers cynical about politicians and government.
Fourteen of 20 of the chairmen of key S.C. legislative committees have agreed to record votes taken at the committee and subcommittee levels, according to an Upstate transparency advocate.
One of the state’s most powerful lawmakers has authored a bill that would put himself on the board of trustees and executive committee of a little-understood, state-controlled technology and real estate company.
Dozens of S.C. magistrates are still on their bench even though their four-year terms have expired - some years ago.
If S.C. Rep. Seth Whipper has his way, the 124-member House would start meeting every Monday when the General Assembly is in session.
A House bill would allow current lawmakers to continue receiving their state pensions while remaining in office.
A judge’s recent dismissal of an ethics lawsuit against Gov. Nikki Haley serves as yet another example of secrecy surrounding ethics matters in the S.C. House. So does the case of former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, who pleaded guilty to seven campaign finance violations and resigned earlier this month.
S.C. Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett apparently is in no mood to publicly discuss his chamber’s proposed $12 million-plus budget for next fiscal year.
In South Carolina, there is one set of rules for state legislators, and another set of rules for everybody else – even state and local elected officials.
Grassroots groups pushing for more accountability and transparency in state government are running into a wall of secrecy in the S.C. General Assembly in trying to obtain legislative communications involving a controversial bill.
The S.C. House and Senate continue to bypass the normal budgetary process when it comes to adopting annual budgets for the two chambers.
An investigation by The Nerve found that several hundred thousand dollars likely will be spent before June wining and dining state lawmakers. A plethora of private organizations and public agencies host the events in an effort to get legislators’ ears – and ultimately, their votes – for the groups’ pet issues.
The S.C. House and Senate typically release their respective chamber budgets months after most other state agencies do so, allowing lawmakers to quietly increase their own budgets with little public scrutiny.
S.C. Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston pre-filed a bill (S. 1038) that would close the defined-benefit retirement program for the 170-member General Assembly after this year and move lawmakers into a defined-contribution plan mirroring the state Optional Retirement Program, which is like a 401k plan.
The state's open-records law for more than 30 years has shielded the S.C. General Assembly from releasing documents showing what it does behind the scenes.
The S.C. Supreme Court has been asked to determine whether a 2007 law that appointed two state legislators to the Charleston County Aviation Authority, which owns Charleston International Airport, violates the state constitution.
The Nerve’s review of Aeronautics Commission flight logs and manifests, or passenger lists, shows that from Jan. 1, 2010, through the end of last month, legislators collectively have approved at least 29 state plane trips for themselves, staff members or others to destinations in and outside South Carolina.
A review by The Nerve of state House and Senate expense records, obtained under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, found that from the start of last year through August of this year, 23 Richland or Lexington County legislators living within 25 miles of the State House have received subsistence payments equal to or greater than payments to lawmakers who live farther away.
As S.C. lawmakers grapple with how to close a recently projected $17 billion gap in the state pension system, 169 state retirees or their beneficiaries earn more than $100,000 annually in retirement benefits, while more than 3,500 individuals in the system receive at least $50,000 yearly, a review by The Nerve has found.
In a 4-1 vote, the state’s top court said the General Assembly violated the S.C. Constitution last year when it overrode former Gov. Mark Sanford’s veto of a bill (H. 4431) involving the Fairfield County School Board.
A year after the Senate received a $5 million overall budget increase for its 46-member chamber – as first reported last year by The Nerve – the 124-member House is seeking a nearly $2.3 million hike for itself, which was quietly slipped in a state budget amendment on the last day for regular business this legislative session.
Since 2006, South Carolina has spent at least $60,000 on highway and other structure signs named after state lawmakers or other individuals, The Nerve found in a review of state transportation records.
As the S.C. General Assembly begins its 119th legislative session this week, the two chambers are maintaining a tradition of secrecy about their own operating budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.
The Nerve on Dec. 6 submitted requests under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act to House Clerk Charles Reid and Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett for their proposed chamber budgets for next fiscal year, which starts July 1.
For some S.C. senators, it pays to have connections with state government.
From 2007 through 2009, S.C. Sen. Kevin Bryant’s pharmacy earned $5 million in payments through the state health plan and Medicaid programs, according to his statements of economic interests filed with the S.C. Ethics Commission.
The Legislature's single-vote practice of overturning vetoes on local legislation is being challenged in the S.C. Supreme Court.
A nearly $5 million budget increase this year for the S.C. Senate is helping to cover pay raises for Senate staffers, despite assertions by leaders of the chamber that the money was needed for other, pressing concerns.
Besides his salary as lieutenant governor, Andre Bauer has been paid thousands more is his role as the Senate president.
Republican S.C. Sen. Jake Knotts of West Columbia lives less than 10 miles from the State House in downtown Columbia.
Democratic state Rep. Joe Neal’s home in Hopkins is only about 16 miles from the state Capitol.
Yet an analysis by The Nerve of legislative records found that the two veteran Midlands lawmakers were among 26 current or former Richland or Lexington County legislators who received a total of at least $500,000 over a 2.5-year period in “subsistence” payments.
Taxpaying South Carolinians, if your state lawmaker looks you in the face and says his or her legislative salary is a lowly $10,400, he or she is not telling you the whole story.
At the very least.
At worst, a member of the General Assembly poor mouthing to that effect without mentioning several other forms of compensation legislators pocket would be downright disingenuous.
The S.C. Legislature is no cheap date for taxpayers.
From Jan. 1, 2008, through this past July 31, state taxpayers shelled out at least $14.8 million to cover salaries and expenses for 202 current or former House and Senate members, The Nerve found in a review of records from each chamber, obtained under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
In South Carolina, retired legislators earn an annual average of $19,605 in gross retirement benefits, based on July figures from the state retirement system.
Assuming the budget passed Thursday by the full Senate mirrors an earlier version approved by the Senate Finance Committee, it would be the 46-member chamber’s largest-ratified budget in at least the past 12 years, according to a review by The Nerve of ratified state budgets since fiscal year 1998, the most recent data available