Hundreds of Thousands Spent Annually Wining and Dining S.C. Lawmakers

WineIt’s a sure sign the S.C. General Assembly is back in session when tents rise on the State House grounds.

On Tuesdays through Thursdays from January through May, and especially with the return of warmer weather, the 170-member General Assembly often is treated to free lunches in a large tent that typically is located next to the Blatt Building, where House members’ offices are located.

Legislators also get plenty of free breakfasts and lunches during session in a first-floor room in the Blatt Building. And several nearby hotels and private clubs are popular legislative gathering spots for free evening receptions.

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.

From Jan. 20 through May 10 last year, 20 groups spent a total of $112,683 on 24 legislative receptions, based on a review by The Nerve of ethics disclosure forms filed with the S.C. Ethics Commission and interviews with officials at several of the host organizations.

But that amount likely is only a relatively small portion of the total food-drink-and-entertainment tab, as most of the host organizations are not classified as “lobbyist principals” and therefore are not required by law to file bi-annual reports on their event costs with the Ethics Commission.

The legal difference between a lobbyist principal and a group not classified as such is that the former “retains a lobbyist to lobby the (General Assembly) on legislation,” while the latter host events to “bring their organization to the attention of the GA without lobbying on specific legislation,” said Cathy Hazelwood, chief attorney for the Ethics Commission.

But Hazelwood acknowledged to The Nerve that there is no independent verification that the non-lobbyist principals are not lobbying during their events, which are closed to the public. She noted her agency would become aware of any possible lobbying violations only if “someone on the inside blabs.”

The lack of verification leaves plenty of opportunity for non-lobbyist principals to engage in off-the-books lobbying.

Lawmakers have access to free meals at the same time they can receive daily $131 “subsistence” payments for meals and hotels while on official legislative business.

And when public groups are hosting events for lawmakers, it raises questions about whether taxpayers are being double-billed if the legislators receive subsistence payments on the days the events are held.

The Nerve last week could not find any readily available total cost figures for legislative receptions. To estimate the total cost of events hosted last year by non-lobbyist principals, which are not required to file disclosure reports with the S.C. Ethics Commission, The Nerve multiplied the average cost of events held by lobbyist principals last year by the number of listed events hosted by non-lobbyist principals.

Based on average event cost of $4,695 last year involving the 20 lobbyist principals that filed disclosure forms, the cost of 96 other events on House and Senate invitations committee lists would have totaled $450,720, The Nerve’s review found.

Using the same formula for the nearly $3,000 median cost of events hosted by lobbyist principals last year, the cost of the other events hosted by non-lobbyist principals would have totaled about $288,000.

Including the collective $112,683 reported by the 20 lobbyist principals, the total estimated cost for lawmaker receptions from Jan. 13 through May 26 last year would have ranged from about $400,000 to $563,000, The Nerve’s review found.

And those totals likely are on the low end.  The Nerve’s review found that at least 18 events last year hosted by lobbyist principals were not reported to the Ethics Commission.

The South Carolina Realtors professional trade association, for example, didn’t initially report costs for four events in February and March, according to an email Tuesday from the organization to Hazelwood.

“I think we’re going to have to do a regular review,” Hazelwood said after being presented with The Nerve’s findings.

Hazelwood said she will ask the organizations in question, which include the South Carolina Hospital Association, The Home Builders Association of South Carolina, South Carolina Economic Developers’ Association,  South Carolina State Firefighters Association and the College of Charleston, to file amended disclosure reports.

“If they don’t, then we’ll send them an official penalty letter,” she said.

Refusing to file an amended disclosure would result in an initial $100 penalty, followed by, if necessary, a penalty of $10 a day for 10 days, then $100 per day until the total reaches $5,000, Hazelwood said.

Lobbyist principals are prohibited under state law from providing a free meal to an individual lawmaker. But they are legally allowed to provide free meals in one event to all lawmakers, a chamber, or legislative committees and county delegations.

“They don’t invite the whole Legislature just to feed them,” said Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington and chairman of the Senate Invitations Committee, which coordinates receptions for senators, when contacted last week by The Nerve. “They all got issues they want to talk about.”

Knotts said no group during a reception has ever asked him for a “commitment to vote on something,” adding, “I’m going to listen to both sides on every issue.”

State law limits the amount that can be spent by lobbyist principals on legislative receptions; the current cap is $60 per person, according to information from the House and Senate invitations committees. Knotts said no event scheduled by the Senate Invitations Committee “exceeds the cost allowed by law.”

But neither the House and Senate invitations committees nor the S.C. Ethics Commission keeps any records on the total amount spent on all receptions during a legislative session.

The Nerve attempted to determine some of last session’s costs by comparing annual event lists provided by the House and Senate invitations committees to online state ethics disclosure forms filed by the hosting groups that are classified as lobbyist principals.

Big Spenders

The single-biggest reported amount spent by a lobbyist principal from January through May last year was $18,159 by the South Carolina Bankers Association, according to its disclosure form. A form filed by the organization with the House Invitations and Memorial Resolutions Committee indicated that an evening reception for lawmakers, the governor, lieutenant governor and other constitutional officers was scheduled for last March at the Columbia Marriott Hotel.

The second-largest reported amount was $11,966 spent by insurer BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina for its annual legislative softball game and picnic at the Capital City Stadium in Columbia in May, records show.

Following is a list of the next eight-largest reported amounts spent by lobbyist principals last year, based on ethics disclosure forms and House invitations committee records:

  • South Carolina Funeral Directors Association – $8,286 for an evening reception at the Palmetto Club in Columbia;
  • South Carolina Association of Technical College Commissioners – $8,267 for an evening reception at the Clarion Hotel in Columbia;
  • South Carolina Association of Municipal Power Systems – $8,114 for an evening reception at the Clarion Hotel in Columbia (Amount listed on disclosure form of the Municipal Association of South Carolina);
  • South Carolina Economic Developers’ Association – $7,219 for an evening reception at the Capital City Club in Columbia;
  • South Carolina Beer Wholesalers Association – $7,097 for an evening reception at its College Street office in Columbia;
  • Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina – $6,418 for an evening reception at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center;
  • Municipal Association of South Carolina – $6,099 for an evening reception at the Columbia Marriott Hotel; and
  • National Kidney Foundation of South Carolina – $3,445 for a luncheon on the State House grounds.

Evening receptions for the Legislature tended to cost the most; breakfasts usually were the least expensive, generally ranging from about $1,000 to $3,000 per event, The Nerve’s review found.

Of 120 scheduled events on House and Senate invitations committee lists provided to The Nerve, 45, or about 38 percent, were held in Room 112 in the Blatt Building, which houses state representatives’ offices, on the State House grounds.

Back-Door Lobbying?

The Nerve’s review found that a number of public agencies or organizations with ties to public agencies host events for lawmakers.

For example, House invitation committee records list members of the S.C. Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Circuit, Master-in-Equity and Family courts as hosting an evening reception for the General Assembly and  the state’s constitutional officers last February at the Clarion Hotel near the State House. Another reception is scheduled for next month, records show.

In addition, the South Carolina Summary Court Judges Association, which represents magistrate and municipal judges statewide, was listed as hosting an evening reception for legislators at Seawell’s Banquet and Reception Center in Columbia last March, and is scheduled to repeat the event this year, according to House invitation committee records.

In a written response to The Nerve last week, Rosalyn Frierson, the state court administrator, said none of those events is “conducted by the (S.C.) Judicial Department,” noting that the receptions are “sponsored with non-public funds by the judges’ associations as listed on the Invitations Committee list.”

But Frierson couldn’t specify who exactly was footing the bill for the receptions, referring The Nerve’s questions to the respective judges’ associations.

The Judicial Department is a registered lobbyist principal, while the judges’ associations are not listed as such, Ethics Commission records show. The department paid a total of $31,000 to lobbyists for the period of Jan. 1 through May 31 last year, Ethics Commission records show.

Frierson did not respond to questions from The Nerve about the purpose of the legislative receptions, or whether she considered those events to be lobbying activities.

At the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, which has hosted breakfasts for lawmakers in recent years, Executive Director Molly Spearman said the events are an opportunity to “say thank you to the legislators for their support and to introduce our award-winning principals (and) assistant principals to legislators.”

Spearman did not respond to a question about whether she considered the event to be a lobbying activity. Her organization is a registered lobbyist principal.

Spearman said the cost of the legislative breakfasts typically is around $1,000 each; last year’s event wasn’t specified on the organization’s disclosure form, though a separate entry listed a catering expense of $1,581.

Hazelwood identified the organization as one of two in The Nerve’s review that did not properly fill out the ethics disclosure form; the other group was the South Carolina Coroner’s Association, she said.

The South Carolina Association of Technical College Commissioners spent about $7,500 for an evening reception last week for lawmakers, SCATCC Chairman Baird Mallory said in a written response to The Nerve. The event was held at the Clarion Hotel, according to House invitation committee records.

Mallory described his group, which is a lobbyist principal, as a private, nonprofit organization “created to foster cooperation and communication and improve the dissemination of information” about the state’s 16 technical colleges.

Asked if he considered the reception to be a lobbying event, Mallory replied: “We do not see it as lobbying since we did not make any specific request of the members in attendance. The reception did not include any type of program, nor any mention of legislative priorities.”

The S.C. Department of Commerce isn’t a registered lobbyist principal, though it was listed as hosting an “Industry Appreciation Week” reception last year for lawmakers and is scheduled to hold a similar event this year on the State House grounds, House invitation committee records show.

Commerce spokeswoman Amy Love did not respond last week to written questions from The Nerve about those events.

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