June 28, 2022

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

The $14 Million Taxpayer Gift to Hollings


The NerveOutside the entrance of the newly built Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library on the University of South Carolina campus is a plaque describing the former governor and U.S. senator as “one of South Carolina’s most visionary leaders.”

“As governor, he guided the state into the civil rights era and led efforts to build a diversified industrial economy. As a U.S. senator, he championed progressive policies to fight hunger and poverty, defend American manufacturing, strengthen national defense and restore fiscal responsibility,” the plaque reads.

What the plaque – or anything else on public display in the 50,000-square-foot building attached to the Thomas Cooper Library – doesn’t say is that nearly $14 million of the $18 million project was paid for with federal earmarks sponsored by Hollings before he retired from the Senate more than five years ago.

There was plenty of hoopla in the mainstream media over the July 23 visit to Columbia by Vice President Joe Biden – a longtime former Senate colleague of Hollings – for the dedication of the Hollings library. But there was no mention of the earmarks in press reports of the visit.

The Nerve’s review of U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) records found that the $13.8 million in earmarks came out of the budgets of three agencies – the Small Business Administration (SBA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and NASA.

A NASA spokeswoman confirmed for The Nerve last week that the earmark from her agency was sponsored by Hollings. Spokesmen for NOAA and NASA said last week that they were checking into it.

USC spokeswoman Margaret Lamb said in a written response Monday to The Nerve that Hollings sponsored the three earmarks.

OMB records show that all three earmarks were enacted in fiscal year 2005 – the year Hollings retired from the Senate – though it wasn’t formally announced until September 2008 that the special collections library would bear his name.

Hollings was a supporter of NASA and NOAA programs, and served for many years as chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. He also was a long-serving member of the Senate Budget Committee, including a stint as its chairman.

Known as “Fritz,” Hollings, who earned his law degree from USC, did not return two phone calls last week from The Nerve to his Isle of Palms office.

Critics say earmarks have drained hundreds of millions of dollars away from the core functions of federal agencies to fund lawmakers’ pet projects. As with provisos in the state budget, earmarks often are approved with little or no public scrutiny of their merits.

“This is a classic example of how politics has led to misguided priorities in Washington,” said Wesley Denton, spokesman for Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of Greenville, when contacted last week by The Nerve about the earmarks. “It appears that Congress has diverted millions in funding from space programs, the National Weather Service and even the Small Business Administration for this single library.”
DeMint replaced Hollings, a Democrat, after the Lowcountry lawmaker retired in 2005, ending a 38-year Senate run.

DeMint has been a leading critic of earmarks.
The Nerve’s review of OMB records found that of the approximate $14 million in earmarks for the Hollings library:

  • $7,893,146 came from the Small Business Administration. The earmark, according to the project description, is supposed to “promote the interest of small business concerns owned and controlled by women and remove barriers to accessing capital.” During a visit last week to the library, however, The Nerve, found no exhibits relating to the project description or agency.
  • $3,942,626 in earmark money came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a Department of Commerce agency Hollings pushed to create in 1970. Hollings’ involvement with the agency is described in a display outside the library entrance and also in a display inside the library’s “Modern Political Collections” wing, which houses papers from Hollings’ 52-year political career and records of other well-known current and former S.C. politicians, including Gov. Mark Sanford and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.
  • $1,973,287 in earmark money came from NASA. According to the project description, “NASA related exhibits and programs in the (library) will inspire and inform the one million plus visitors.”  But other than the display outside the library entrance highlighting Hollings’ support of the agency, there were no NASA exhibits, and only one patron was present during The Nerve’s visit last week.

The Nerve last week asked spokespersons for the three agencies how the earmarks complied with the mission or goals of the agencies.

NASA spokeswoman Katherine Trinidad said the Hollings collection at the library includes about 50 folders on NASA and space, with 20 files on the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster. She noted that Hollings was an “active member of the Commerce Committee which has jurisdiction over science, space and technology issues.”

“NASA’s mission includes support for education with goals to inspire and motivate students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and engage the public in shaping and sharing the experience of exploration and discovery,” Trinidad said in a written response. “The principal merits of the grant are in alignment with NASA’s commitment to education and public outreach, and the positive association for NASA with this facility for research and education.”

Asked if any other NASA grants over the past 10 years have been awarded to build libraries for current or former members of Congress, Trinidad replied: “In the past five fiscal years, NASA has not awarded any earmarks requesting construction. Prior to the past five years, NASA has incomplete data/records to confirm whether any Congressional earmark involved a construction grant.”

A NOAA spokesman confirmed the earmark amount from his agency when contacted last week by The Nerve, though he couldn’t answer other questions.

SBA spokesman Dennis Byrne in a written response last week to The Nerve disputed the project description for his agency’s earmark as cited in OMB records.

“The purpose you cite was not the statutory purpose of the legislation,” Byrne said, noting that the legislation “explicitly” states that “8,000,000 shall be available for the University of South Carolina Thomas Cooper Library.”

Byrne could not say if any SBA grants in the past 10 years have gone to build libraries for Congress members.

“We receive over 200 earmark grants from Congress per year,” he said. “We do not track them by project description and thus have no readily available means of answering your question.”

OMB records listed USC as the recipient of the SBA grant, and the university’s research foundation as receiving the NOAA and NASA earmarks. Contacted last week, a woman who answered the phone at the research foundation’s Columbia office referred The Nerve’s questions to Lamb, the university’s spokeswoman.

Asked about the appropriateness of the earmarks, Lamb replied in a written response, “Hollings was a noted expert on NOAA and NASA,” noting that he had a “key role in the creation of NOAA.”

“His collection documents its creation, as well as the growth of NASA during his tenure in the Senate,” she continued. “In describing his papers in detailed fashion, as per our website, we encourage and facilitate research into these programs. They ought to provide remarkable insight into the workings of these agencies.”

Lamb pointed out that researchers using the university’s political collections website can find collections of other S.C. politicians relating to those agencies.

The library, which is located at the back of the Thomas Cooper Library, is divided into two wings: the “Modern Political Collections” (MPC) section and the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, named after benefactors C. Warren Irvin Jr. and Josephine B. Irvin. In between are a reading room named after benefactor Dorothy Brown Smith and a large meeting room.

Both sections are in the finishing stages of completion. The MPC section has 10 display cases, though others are planned, according to a library spokeswoman. It also features a small audio-visual room, a conference room and three other smaller meeting rooms.

The library has three floors, the top of which is open to the public. The other two floors house staff offices and the collections of political papers and other records of Hollings and other S.C. politicians.

Of the $18 million project, $4 million was covered with private donations, according to Lamb.

To put the $14 million in public funding in some perspective, that amount would more than cover the state general fund budgets this fiscal year of the following S.C. agencies that deal with the poor or disadvantaged:

  • S.C. School for the Deaf and Blind;
  • S.C. Department of Vocational Rehabilitation;
  • S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services; and
  • S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense

Hollings’ early crusade against hunger and poverty was captured in a 1970 book he authored titled, The Case Against Hunger: A Demand for a National Policy. That book and a 2008 book he authored, Making Government Work, are on display in the Hollings library.

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

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