Last week, The Nerve’s Rick Brundrett published a piece about S.C. Senator Luke Rankin’s income. Sen. Rankin, Brundrett wrote, “has received more than $2.8 million in legal fees from workers’ compensation cases from 2007 through last year, or an average of more than $478,000 per year.” At the same time, Rankin has routinely sponsoredand amended legislation affecting workers’ comp laws – and hence his firm’s profitability. Moreover he has long been a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which screens candidates for the Workers’ Compensation Commission – the body that approves attorney fees in workers’ comp cases.
Owing to an exception in the state law barring conflicts of interest, it’s not entirely clear that Rankin’s behavior is unlawful. Yet it’s about as clear cut a case of conflict as you’re likely to find.
That piece evidently reminded many readers of an unfortunate reality – that only in South Carolina are state elected officials allowed to reveal nothing about their personal income. A number of readers took the opportunity to ask their elected officials if they would participate in SCPC’s Project Conflict Watch.
The replies they received from lawmakers varied. Rep. Joe Daning (R-Berkeley), for instance, replied that he had read the Policy Council’s disclosure form, but “I am in full compliance already and you can see my income on the State website and checking my Statement of Economic Interests [SEI].” Rep. Daning may be right that he has reported all his income on his SEI. (You can review his statements here.) It’s worth mentioning, however, that the Statement of Economic Interests requires far less disclosure than what would be required under a genuine income disclosure law: the SEI stipulates only that officials reveal state contracts and any business in which they own at least 5 percent of a company’s outstanding stock if the stock’s total value exceeds $100,000. If you own a business that brings in, say, $70,000 per year, you would not be required to tell your constituents anything about it.
Rep. Leola Robinson-Simpson (D-Greenville), by contrast, responded to one of her constituents by stating flatly, “I have no private income. I get Social Security and a pension from the SC Retirement.” By “private income” she apparently means income from the private sector, not income derived from non-legislative work: according to her SEI, she draws $8,429 from Greenville Technical College and $7,593 from the Greenville County School District.
Sen. Sean Bennett (R-Dorchester), meanwhile, has amended an earlier response to constituents. A few weeks ago Bennett was responding to queries in this way: “Recognizing that everyone’s politics and motives are different, I have chosen not to participate in any single organization’s efforts to act as an income disclosure clearinghouse.” Now he’s added this:
I do, and have always, voluntarily disclosed my income for all you see. You can find that disclosure on my website at www.bennettscsenate.com. As you will see there, outside of government, I am the sole shareholder and President of Asset Integration Consultants, Inc., a wealth management firm in Summerville, SC. I have held this position since 1995. Income I receive is solely the result of this activity and is a combination of salary and dividend income.
To return to Sen. Rankin, though, we received an interesting email describing one of his constituents’ attempts to get him to reveal his private income. After buttonholing him at a military event at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center and asking him to participate in Project Conflict Watch, the constituent writes, “I asked him if it wasn’t time for him to retire. I told him he needs to think seriously about retiring and getting out of Columbia. He looked a little puzzled but kept smiling.”
The Nerve takes no position on whether Sen. Rankin should retire or not. But a man whose firm has made nearly $3 million over the last six years – in large measure through the influence he has as a state senator over workers’ comp law – is probably an unlikely candidate for retirement.