June 6, 2023

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

Clemson Seeks Multimillion-Dollar Venture with Taxpayer-Funded Nonprofit Involved in Birth-Defects Testing

DNAA taxpayer-supported, nonprofit genetics center in Greenwood that provides patient information about prenatal birth defects is a step closer toward landing a $5 million taxpayer-funded gift with Clemson University for the construction of another research facility.

The state Joint Bond Review Committee on Wednesday approved the issuance of $5 million in general obligations bonds – to be paid back by S.C. taxpayers with interest – to Clemson University. The bond proceeds would be used toward a new 17,000-square-foot research facility as part of a $21.57 million, joint-venture project involving Clemson and the Greenwood Genetic Center (GGC), according to documents provided for the meeting.

Final approval of the project rests with the five-member S.C. Budget and Control Board, made up of the governor, comptroller general, treasurer and chairmen of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees.

The Greenwood center, which receives millions annually in state funding, is a nonprofit organization established in 1975 that focuses on research, testing and education related to intellectual disabilities and birth defects, according to its website. Once constructed by 2016, the new research facility, to be located in the Greenwood Research Park, would house Clemson’s genetics doctoral program, documents show.

The GGC was cited in a 2010 (Raleigh) News & Observer story that noted that some birth defects, such as anencephaly (a defect that can cause missing brain hemispheres), have been linked to still-born deaths.

“When serious deformities are detected, some parents choose abortion,” according to the story. “National data are not available. But the Greenwood Genetic Center in South Carolina reports that, over the past 18 years, 389 South Carolina babies were diagnosed with anencephaly, and 67 percent of their mothers had abortions.”

Asked by The Nerve this week if the GGC provides abortion counseling to patients in light of the 2010 story, center spokeswoman Lori Bassett replied in an email, “We do not recommend or suggest that anyone have an abortion, but in the context of patient support, we will answer patient questions if they arise.”

“We educate families and advocate for our patients with birth defects, intellectual disabilities and other types of genetic disorders,” Bassett also said. “The counseling we provide is designed to be supportive and educational regarding the diagnosis or potential diagnosis. We maintain only the medical records pertinent to our care of each patient and family. We are not an abortion provider.”

A longstanding state budget proviso allows the S.C. Department of Disabilities and Special Needs (DDSN) to spend up to $126,000 annually to “promote expanded prenatal diagnosis of mental retardation and related defects by the Greenwood Genetic Center.”

DDSN spokeswoman Lois Park-Moll told The Nerve that she does not know the origin of the proviso’s wording, but that it has been authorized for about 20 years.

Besides the proposed $5 million in taxpayer-funded bonds, the $21.57 million joint-venture project would include:

  • A gift of nearly 15 acres of land to Clemson from Greenwood County and the Greenwood Commissioners of Public Works, valued at $1.14 million;
  • Existing cash contributions, including $1.5 million in “gift funds donated by Greenwood County”; and
  • Two leased facilities from the Greenwood Genetic Center totaling more than 33,000 square feet, with a listed collective “in-kind” value of about $14 million. Clemson would use one building for three years and the second one for 15 years.

The project was approved last month by the SmartState (also known as the S.C. Centers of Economic Excellence) Review Board , which must affirm that a research capital project has at least a 50 percent match from non-state sources.

“The review board believes that this project represents an exciting opportunity for Clemson University and the state,” SmartState Review Board Chairman Regan Voit wrote in a March 22 letter to Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who is chairman of both the Senate Finance and Joint Bond Review (JBRC) committees.

Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, who is the House Ways and Means Committee chairman and a JBRC member, noted the nearly $160,000 in annual operating expenses once the facility is built.

Kathy Coleman, Clemson’s director of state relations, said the university would absorb the operating costs.

“I just want to make sure because generally we don’t appropriate enough money for them to operate,” White said sarcastically.

“Have you heard that?” Leatherman asked White.

“I have heard that once or twice, but they keep adding buildings, so I just want to make sure,” White said.

The project at the J.C. Self Research Institute of Human Genetics would accommodate space for more than 40 researchers, technicians and doctoral students. Documents provided to the JBRC show that Clemson believes that it can generate a “minimum of $1.5 million annually in grant revenue,” which could climb to $3 million a year.

By 2021, the venture between the GGC and Clemson is projected to generate $10 million in federal and private genetic research, according to documents.

“The (collaborative research) center is projected to create a total payroll of over $50 million with a projected capital investment exceeding $80 million across South Carolina,” Clemson documents state. “This center advances ‘knowledge-based industries’ creating a nationally competitive team for the new diagnostic development and genetic therapeutics.”

The existing Greenwood Genetic Center already receives millions of taxpayer dollars annually from the state.

Beginning in fiscal year 2011, the center received a total of $8.8 million from the state through DDSN, $2.25 million of which was from the general fund. The remaining money came from “special items” in “other funds,” budget records show.

For this fiscal year, which started July 1, state funding rose to $9.5 million, with about $3 million from the general fund and the remainder in “other funds.” The center’s ratified fiscal 2013 state appropriation would be the same for next fiscal year, according to a version of the state budget that passed the House last month and is now before the Senate.

Meanwhile, the GGC’s 2011 federal income tax form reveals the center had $19 million in total expenses and generated $19.7 million in total revenue, including $11.9 million in contributions and grants. That rose from $17.8 million in revenue in 2010, with $10.5 million in contributions and grants; the center that year had $18.4 million in expenses.

Of the GGC’s $19.7 million in expenses in 2011, $8.6 million was for salaries and wages. Following is a list of the top salaries paid two years ago, according to tax records:

  • Dr. Roger E. Stevenson, who is one of the center’s co-founders:  $265,650;
  • Dr. Steve Skinner, center director: $233,000;
  • Dr. Richard J. Schroer: $211,956;
  • Dr. Richard Rogers and Dr. Robert A. Saul: $193,535;
  • Dr. Lola Clarkson: $177,027;
  • Charles E. Schwartz, laboratory director: $169,417;
  • Michael J. Friez, laboratory director: $159,850;
  • Dr. David Everman:  $149,922;
  • Dr. Neena Champaigne:  $147,000;
  • Barbara A. DuPont, laboratory director: $144,700;
  • Dr. Joseph B. Geer: $143,294; and
  • Dr. Michael J. Lyons: $139,500.

Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or curt@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.

We need your help to continue our mission of holding government officials accountable! As part of the South Carolina Policy Council, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, we rely on donations to operate. Please consider giving today so we can keep bringing accountability to government. It’s your power, and it’s time to take it back!
The Nerve