June 2, 2023

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

Will ‘Bobby Bucks’ Taint Possible Ethics Probe?

Bobby HarrellThey’re called “Bobby Bucks,” and they’re the legislative equivalent of Turkish delights.

Seemingly impossible to resist, once taken they exact a price far exceeding their monetary value – the perception, whether real or imagined – of compromising one’s personal integrity as a public official.

Accept them and tacitly agree to tow whatever line one is told, even if that means potentially going against one’s own ethical standards. Refuse them and risk relinquishing choice committee assignments, political power and possibly a future in the party.

Specifically, “Bobby Bucks” are the dollars that come directly and indirectly from the Palmetto Leadership Council (PLC), the political action committee affiliated with House Speaker Bobby Harrell. They are used to exceed campaign-finance restrictions, dole out personal favors and wield enormous influence, critics say.

And the beauty is that under current court rulings, it’s all 100 percent legal.

Why is this important? Because with a possible investigation into Harrell’s reimbursement of campaign funds looming over the new legislative session amid a powerful climate of ethics reform following comprehensive investigations last year of both the governor and lieutenant governor, the issue of potential conflicts of interest is magnified for the following reason:

According to a review by The Nerve of campaign finance disclosures, every Republican member of the newly reorganized House Ethics Committee, including the committee chairman, Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, has accepted “Bobby Bucks.” Collectively, the five GOP members of the 10-member committee received $13,000 in PLC donations since the 2008 election cycle, records show.

Asked about a potential conflict of interest in accepting the donations, Bingham in a recent written response to The Nerve said, “As to whether I or any member of the Ethics Committee might have a conflict of interest simply by virtue of having received a campaign donation from the Speaker’s leadership PAC, I would say such a criticism would be unfounded.

“Over time, most every member of the General Assembly receives campaign contributions from many sources, including many individuals and businesses impacted by decisions we make. Also, it is in the nature of a peer review process like the Ethics Committee that you are called upon to render judgments and make decisions about the behavior of colleagues.”

Neither Harrell nor his spokesman, Greg Foster, responded to The Nerve’s requests for an interview for this story.

Membership Has Its Privileges

Next Wednesday inside the gilded walls of the super-exclusive, members-only Palmetto Club a block from the State House, the Palmetto Leadership Council will hold one of its two annual fundraising receptions, billed as one of “Columbia’s most anticipated receptions of the year” and boasting attendance by “pro-business House and Senate legislators as well as PLC members, which include South Carolina’s most influential business leaders.”

A one-year membership in the PLC comes at a price tag of $3,500, according to the group’s website, and like the famous American Express ads say, “Membership has its privileges.” That’s because it buys access to the man with the sole power to determine most committee memberships in the House and, thereby, one’s political influence.

By itself, assigning committee seats is a significant amount of power, one exercised by House speakers long before Harrell assumed the role in 2005.

Through the unprecedented lining of his fellow lawmakers’ pockets through his leadership PAC, however, critics say Harrell has expanded his influence beyond any previous speaker and made those already indebted to his political favor now indebted to him financially as well.

“No previous speaker has had his own PAC,” said John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause of South Carolina.

“In the past, speakers such as Bob Sheheen and David Wilkins, they did not give out campaign contributions,” Crangle continued. “They did give out retaliations on committees if someone didn’t play ball, but you didn’t have the nexus between money and power you have in Bobby Harrell. This is where been a break in tradition.

“He feels he has a slush fund he can use for anything and everything he wants to.”

According to published reports, since 2008, the PLC has raised more than $1.3 million from public and private entities and given out nearly $500,000 to the S.C. House Republican Caucus, state Republican Party and more than 100 House and two dozen Senate candidates, in addition to tens of thousands in contract work to firms associated with sitting lawmakers.

While contributions from single donors are capped at $1,000 for House and Senate candidates and $3,500 for candidates for statewide office per election cycle, the PLC circumvents those limits by additionally funding the state party and House party caucus that subsequently also donate to candidates, critics say.

How is this legal? In 2010, a federal court ruling left the definition of “committee” in limbo, according to Cathy Hazelwood, the State Ethics Commission’s chief attorney and deputy director.

“The Supreme Court has been abundantly clear that money per candidate can be capped,” Hazelwood told the Gov. Nikki Haley-appointed, 11-member S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform on Dec. 11. “But the PAC situation is so in flux with every jurisdiction, every appellate jurisdiction and the U.S. Supreme Court. They can gather all this money because there are no contribution limits.”

“If you’re in the crossfire of one of these groups,” Hazelwood continued, “they have unlimited independent expenditures targeting you; and there is no way for you as a candidate to come back and say, ‘You need to know that this group is Big Tobacco, and they don’t like me because I’m about health care,’ because the filings don’t require them to say who all they represent. It does not lead to an informed electorate.”

Hazelwood added that the state of South Carolina already has paid out some $500,000 in attorney fees while losing related lawsuits.

What’s more, beyond the PLC effectively being able to donate to specific candidates via the different party funding outlets and beyond being able to direct unlimited funds to advertising campaigns, the PAC has paid for plenty of work provided by private businesses of sitting lawmakers and Harrell’s spokesman, Foster, according to an April 2012 story in the Charleston Post & Courier.

According to the report, the Palmetto Leadership Council gave $123,000 worth of work to Geechie Communications, the business of Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley; while Foster received $23,000 over four years during periods he characterized as leaves of absence from his then-$85,000-a-year state job.

The Senate does not allow leadership PACs, having banned them in 2011. Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, has sponsored a bill this session, S.13, that would prohibit “a political action committee organized by or on behalf of the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, any other statewide constitutional officer, a member of the General Assembly, or a director or deputy director of a state department appointed by the Governor.”

The bill faces a likely rough future, however, as last year a similar effort by Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, and Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw and nephew of former House Speaker Bob Sheheen, was blocked by lawmakers who took money from the PLC, records show.

Fox, Meet Henhouse

Just how extensive the Palmetto Leadership Council’s influence is could be revealed if the reorganized House Ethics Committee is tasked, as some expect, with investigating Harrell over the controversy that he reimbursed himself tens of thousands of dollars in campaign funds over the past several years for the use of his personal plane on what he described as political or legislative trips.

Harrell has repeatedly denied he did anything wrong, and he has not been charged with any criminal or administrative violations.

In a state where legislators police themselves often sluggishly or with dubious results, last month’s reorganization of the House Ethics Committee did change the membership from a Harrell-friendly, Republican-dominated committee of six to a 10-member bipartisan group with half from each party.

The committee members are Bingham, the committee chairman; Jenny Horne, R-Dorchester; Murrell Smith, R-Sumter; Tommy Pope, R-York; Mike Pitts, R-Laurens; Ronnie Sabb, D-Williamsburg; Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston; Elizabeth Munnerlyn, D-Marlboro; Chandra Dillard, D-Greenville; and David Weeks, D-Sumter. Pitts is the only returning member of the committee.

According to a review of campaign disclosures by The Nerve, Bingham, Horne and Smith each received the maximum $1,000 donation from the PLC in the 2008, 2010 and 2012 election cycles, while Pitts and Pope each received $1,000 in PLC money in 2010 and 2012, for a grand total of $13,000 for the period. No Democratic members of the committee received PLC money during the period, records show.

What remains to be seen, then, is how the influence of those “Bobby Bucks”-accepting Republicans will play out should he come before them.

For critics, the notion of impartiality when it comes to potentially investigating the hand that feeds them is nothing less than absurd.

“If (the Republican ethics committee members) have any sense of decency or rationality, they’d say ‘We’re compromised by conflicts,’” Crangle said. “The public will be skeptical enough as it is, and if they found no wrong, the public would feel they disregarded evidence because they’re subject to all these conflicts of interest. It’s obvious they can’t possibly be objective.”

Speaking exclusively with The Nerve, new House Ethics Committee chairman Bingham said he well understands the public’s frustration and apprehension.

“I recognize that we have to establish a public trust that does not exist today,” Bingham said. “I’d ask people to give this new committee a chance to act, and I think people will see that we will do everything we can to instill public integrity. I think that you will see a different approach and different attitude with this body.

“As an ethics committee, you need to be able to investigate charges, and you also need to be able to clear people in certain instances. In all cases, the public has got to have some degree of confidence in the process, and I’m going to do everything I can to instill integrity in the process.

“One thing I will not sell to anybody or anything is my character or my integrity,” Bingham continued. “I’ve spent too long building it – I’ve got 16 years of public service. It’s not for sale because it is who you are, and I take that extremely seriously.”

Still, Bingham realizes that when it comes to influence, especially the influence of Harrell and the PLC, perception is reality until proven otherwise.

“There’s nothing I can say that’s going to change people’s minds,” he said. “You have to prove yourself by action.”

Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809 or ron@thenerve.org.

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