By RICK BRUNDRETT
At last Tuesday’s meeting of a special S.C. Senate ethics study committee, Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry and the committee chairman, said despite a local editorial calling on people to contact him to push for ethics reform, “Not one person has mentioned anything to me that’s not inside this political arena we’re in to urge me to do anything.”
“Perhaps they weren’t reading the paper that day, or perhaps they don’t read at all,” said Rankin, who also chairs the standing Senate Ethics Committee. “But I found it kind of curious that there was no hue and cry there that particular day.”
What Rankin, an attorney who’s been in the Senate since 1993, didn’t discuss during the public hearing was his own legislative history as it relates to his occupation. The Nerve’s review of legislative records and Rankin’s annual income-disclosure forms filed with the State Ethics Commission found that:
- Rankin 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. Under state law, the seven-member state Workers’ Compensation Commission, which approves attorney fees in workers’ compensation cases, is appointed by the governor with consent of the Senate. Rankin has been a longtime member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which screens Workers’ Compensation Commission candidates.
- Since 2007, Rankin has co-sponsored at least nine bills dealing with workers’ compensation issues and was a member of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that debated at least seven other workers’ compensation-related bills.
- In 2007 when the General Assembly passed a workers’-compensation reform bill that became law (Act 111), Rankin co-authored three floor amendments in the Senate’s initial version of the bill, voted for the final third reading of the Senate’s initial version, and later voted for a House-Senate compromise version of the legislation.
- Last year, Rankin voted for the second reading of a House bill, which became law (Act 183), dealing with attorney and doctor fees and hospital charges in workers’ compensation cases, when the bill came to the Senate floor.
Under state law (Section 8-13-700 of the S.C. Code of Laws), a public official can’t “knowingly use his official office, membership, or employment to obtain an economic interest for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated.”
Another section of that law says a public official can’t “make, participate in making, or in any way attempt to use his office, membership, or employment to influence a governmental decision in which he, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated has an economic interest.”
But there’s a huge loophole (Section 8-13-100) in the law that lawmakers facing potential conflicts of interest routinely use: Known as the “large-class exception,” legislators can vote on anything that helps their businesses so long as it also benefits other members of their industry or occupation.
The 46-member Senate and 124-member House police their own members for ethical violations through their respective ethics committees. The State Ethics Commission has jurisdiction over the state’s nine constitutional officers, including the governor; local elected officials; and lobbyists and their clients.
The Nerve last week left written and phone messages for Rankin seeking comment, but he did not respond. The website of his Conway law firm touts, “Our focus has always been on pursuing justice for Personal Injury, Workers’ Compensation, as well as Wrongful Death Claims and Social Security Disability Appeal issues.”
When informed last week by The Nerve about the $2.8 million-plus in workers’ compensation fees paid to Rankin, Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens and the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, pointed out that other lawyer-legislators, including former longtime Sen. John Land, D-Clarendon, have made money over the years off workers’ compensation cases.
The Nerve in 2011 reported that Land’s law firm received $4.4 million in legal fees from 2007 through 2009, mainly from workers’ compensation cases.
“I don’t necessarily believe Luke Rankin gets special consideration because is a member of the Senate,” Martin said. “He does a bunch of that (workers’ compensation cases), and he’s very good at it.”
“The reason Land and Rankin have made so much money is not because of their position, but because of their reputation,” Martin added, noting that he has referred potential legal clients to Rankin, Land and Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg and a criminal defense attorney.
Martin said Rankin and other lawyer-legislators on the Senate Judiciary Committee “routinely” have recused themselves from voting in committee on Workers’ Compensation Commission candidates. The Nerve’s review of Senate Journals since 2008 show that Rankin abstained from voting on commission candidates when brought to the Senate floor for a final vote.
In those cases, records show, Rankin cited a state law (Section 8-13-745) banning lawyer-legislators from representing clients for a fee in contested cases before state agencies if they voted on the appointment of members of the agency’s governing board in the preceding year.
But Martin, the former Senate Rules Committee chairman, acknowledged that state law doesn’t prohibit Rankin from discussing Workers’ Compensation Commission candidates during Judiciary Committee hearings or during closed, executive sessions on the Senate floor before a vote.
He said several years ago, he and former Judiciary Committee Chairman Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, who is now the state’s lieutenant governor, proposed legislation that would have restricted discussions by lawmakers at the committee level in conflict-of-interest situations after a contentious Judiciary Committee screening hearing for a Workers’ Compensation Commission candidate. Martin said several lawyer-legislators grilled the candidate for two hours, though he couldn’t remember which senators were doing the questioning.
“It was almost like a filibuster,” he recalled.
Martin said he hopes that stalled ethics legislation to be taken up when the Legislature returns to session in January will place limits on committee discussions by lawmakers who have conflicts of interest, in addition to banning them from voting in those cases.
“If they have a unique point of view they need to share with us, they can do that,” Martin said. “But if they appear to be overly involved in the discussion that they ultimately will recuse themselves on (voting), I don’t approve of that.”
“There is a way to do that where everything is above board,” he added, “and it meets the smell test.”
Jamie Murguia, the South Carolina Policy Council’s director of research, and research intern Margaret Rupp contributed to this story. Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.