Greg Foster can do a lot of things most people can’t do.
When you’re the deputy chief of staff and communications director for House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston – arguably the most powerful legislator in South Carolina and the man who makes the rules – there are benefits that go well beyond your generous $87,550 state salary.
- Want to take a paid, two-month “leave of absence” to earn more than $12,000 doing consulting work for a political action committee with ties to your boss all while collecting your state salary?
- Want to get reimbursed for thousands of dollars for legislative travel when you’re not, in fact, a legislator?
- Want to bill your personal time as a self-styled computer expert and receive thousands of dollars a year extra from your boss for updating his political website, while other computer firms also are billing in the thousands for computer-related work?
Most people can’t do these things, but Greg Foster can.
Welcome to the charmed life of Foster, whose boss, Harrell, currently is the focus of a State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) inquiry into allegations of ethics violations, and who, according to state records, is the single-biggest beneficiary of Harrell’s heavy hand (other than Harrell himself) with campaign funds to the tune of $69,849 since 2010 – over and above his state salary.
(Harrell has publicly denied that he has done anything wrong, and he has not been charged with any criminal or administrative violations.)
For Foster, the financial windfall apparently is par for the course when you’re close to someone as politically powerful as Harrell.
And Foster isn’t the only Harrell staffer who has dedicated time to outside activities near and dear to the speaker’s heart. The Nerve in 2010, for example, first reported how House staffers had committed an unknown amount of work time to coordinating fundraising and planning for an upcoming national legislative conference in Charleston that included a party at Harrell’s home.
Comparatively speaking, Foster’s official salary – $87,550 a year, according to The State newspaper’s public salary database as of Sept. 6, 2012 – is in line with what his contemporaries make. For example, Robby Dawkins, longtime chief of staff and right-hand man for Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and the chairman of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, makes $95,596, while over in the governor’s office, spokesperson Rob Godfrey makes $74,160.
That’s where the similarities end, however, and the ambiguity begins.
From January 2011 to March 2013, Foster received an additional $34,203 in reimbursements and fees from Harrell’s campaign fund, $24,000 of which was for maintaining the “Speaker’s website” (http://bobbyharrell.com/), according to campaign-disclosure forms reviewed by The Nerve from the State Ethics Commission’s website.
Foster received $9,000 cumulatively in 2011 for work on the website, but from January 2012 to March 2013, he was paid $1,000 every month, records show. He also received $1,000 per month in 2010.
The work first appears on Harrell’s campaign-disclosure reports in 2009, when Foster earned $4,000, bringing his total earnings since then for his side website job to $40,000 – and counting.
What remains unclear – and what Foster has refused to answer – is precisely when he’s doing the work. Ethically, campaign work for Harrell should be done on Foster’s own, private time, and not on the taxpayer dime or using taxpayer-funded equipment, such as his office computer.
As early as a month ago, Foster was presented these questions from The Nerve. In an email dated March 21, Foster was asked, among other things:
“My question to you is with the Speaker’s website, do you perform this work on personal or taxpayer time, and on what computers do you use? Can you document or verify in any way that no work was performed on state computers or on taxpayer time?”
Furthermore, Foster also was asked and has yet to answer how he claims the money for income-tax purposes, and whether he has a business license as required for independent contractors in Richland County.
Both issues raise alarms for John Crangle, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina.
“Is Foster treated as an independent contractor for his website work or as an employee?” Crangle asked. “If he’s an independent contractor he needs a business license from Richland County and a city license in the city of Columbia. … Also, if the campaign didn’t issue a 1099 (income-tax form) for him, has the campaign account been paying withholding taxes?”
Crangle also has questions about Foster’s use of his state computer: “Can he document without a doubt that he’s never used his state computer to do any campaign work for Harrell’s political website or for the Palmetto Leadership Council (a political action committee affiliated with Harrell)? Does anyone think he’s really doing all this work on his own time, after hours, when he gets home?”
“The time and the place where he’s doing the work are critical,” Crangle continued. “If you can establish he’s maintained the website at the same time he’s on the state payroll or is using state equipment, that’s a major problem there.”
Neither Foster nor Harrell responded to more than a month of messages from The Nerve regarding these questions.
Further muddying the issue of what precisely is being paid for is the fact that over the same period of time, January 2011 to March 2013, both E Systems Solutions in Charleston has been paid a total of $10,954 for “computer services” (an average of $405 a month), and political strategist Wesley Donehue’s firm also received $2,397 in 2011 under the description of “Speaker’s website.”
For Crangle, it’s all meant to be confusing.
“They make the descriptions as generic as possible to avoid having to be accountable for who is getting paid for what work,” he said. “What is the $1,000 Foster is getting a month going for? Is it for 60 hours of work or 60 minutes of work? Are the rates reasonable for the market? Who knows? They won’t say.
“I think SLED, as part of their investigation, has to ask Foster what he’s doing for that money.”
Perks for Travel, Perks for Leave
Another area in which Foster has received thousands of dollars in reimbursements from Harrell’s campaign fund is in the area of legislative travel. From May 2011 to November 2012, Foster received $7,881 in funds designated on campaign expenditures as “legislative travel” in amounts ranging from $84 (Nov. 19, 2012) to $4,339 (Sept. 20, 2012). The year before, 2010, he received $2,980 in travel reimbursements.
For government critics such as Crangle, the notion of non-legislators getting reimbursed for legislative travel is shaky to begin with.
“Foster is getting all this money for legislative travel, but he’s not a member of the Legislature,” Crangle says. “That’s a problem.
“Foster holds no office. Nobody elected him to do anything. He’s not supposed to get reimbursed for that because he’s paid a full-time salary; legislative travel is meant for legislators to be able to attend sessions in Columbia while serving their constituencies, not for staffers to go to conferences.”
Crangle also questions the other expenses – office supplies, meals, equipment and phones – in addition to travel that bring Foster’s total campaign reimbursements to $14,565 since 2010.
“Because disclosure forms are so vague, there’s no detail to hold people accountable,” Crangle said. “The (state) ethics act limits how much a campaign can reimburse a candidate. If he’s (Harrell) getting all this money reimbursed, that means he’s buying things out of pocket for the campaign, which means he’s loaning the campaign money.”
Besides cashing checks from the state of South Carolina and Bobby Harrell’s campaign fund to the collective tune of $205,831 in 2011 and 2012, Foster also has received a significant sum from the Palmetto Leadership Council (PLC), the political action committee affiliated with Harrell, in recent years.
In 2010 alone Foster received $19,283 for “professional services” according to committee finance records maintained by the State Ethics Commission. He received an additional $3,680 in 2008, bringing his total income received by the PLC to $22,963.
Such payments landed Foster in the uncomfortable spotlight of mass-media scrutiny when in 2010 he took a paid eight-week leave of absence from his job as Harrell’s spokesperson to do the work for the PLC. He was paid $12,283 during that period, records show.
Getting paid while on leave from the state and receiving at the same time money from a political action committee drew the scorn of many, even though under state law such action is allowed.
At the time Foster characterized his involvement with the PLC to the Charleston Post & Courier as “pro-business advocacy on conservative issues,” though when asked for details about what duties he performed, he was less specific.
“I can’t remember what all was going on,” he said.
Fail to remember what you did on paid two-month leave to earn an additional $12,283?
Most people can’t, but Greg Foster can.
Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Aiken on Twitter @RonAiken. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenerves