By RICK BRUNDRETT
Ethics agency told to call advocacy group to ‘confirm understanding’
The head of a national gun-rights organization says Gov. Nikki Haley’s office last week tried to “bully” his group after hundreds of members contacted her office opposing a touted ethics-reform bill.
Dudley Brown, executive vice-president and CEO of the National Association for Gun Rights, told The Nerve on Friday that Haley’s office directed the State Ethics Commission to contact his organization in response to the grassroots effort.
The Ethics Commission – the state’s ethics-watchdog agency – is not a Haley cabinet agency, though the governor appoints the nine governing commissioners, with consent of the Legislature.
“Simply by the Ethics Commission calling our office and asking about an existing and pending matter before the Legislature – it was a clear method to intimidate citizens from practicing free speech,” said Brown, who lives in Colorado and also serves as CEO of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Gun Owners organization.
“This was a transparent bully attempt by your governor warning us, ‘Shut up, or the Ethics Commission is coming to look at you,’” Brown continued. “To that we say, ‘Bring it on.’”
Brown said a number of national organizations, which he didn’t identify, were “ready to sue the state if this bill passed and was implemented.”
On its website, the nonprofit National Association for Gun Rights (NAGR), founded in 2001, describes itself as a “civil rights advocacy organization designed to educate gun owners about state and federal legislation that affects their gun rights.”
“NAGR assists the growing movement of state-level grassroots gun rights organizations, as well as organizing grassroots lobbying on state and federal legislation,” the site says, noting the group has a related political-action committee that “enables us to directly support candidates that we believe have a solid pro-gun record.”
In South Carolina, the nonprofit Palmetto Gun Rights organization is affiliated with NAGR.
The Nerve on Thursday sent written questions to Haley’s top lawyer, Swati Patel, and Haley spokesman Doug Mayer seeking comment about the NAGR’s contact with the Governor’s Office, but received no response.
In email responses last week to The Nerve, Cathy Hazelwood, the State Ethics Commission’s chief lawyer and deputy director, said she spoke to Brown “at the request of the governor’s office.” But she said she “didn’t communicate anything to him” because he declined to speak with her, noting he indicated to her that he “only takes calls from the governor.”
Asked why the Governor’s Office wanted her to contact Brown, Hazelwood initially replied, “The governor’s office wished to confirm their understanding of several sections of H.3945 regarding voter guides, etc.”
In a follow-up response after The Nerve asked for more specifics, Hazelwood said, “Swati (Patel) wanted to confirm our mutual understanding of Section 31 and 38 of the conference report (on H. 3945).”
Hazelwood didn’t directly answer whether the Governor’s Office was upset that NAGR was opposing H.3945, though she noted the group had “sent an e-blast to its members who then contacted the governor’s office to the tune of 100+ calls and emails.”
Hazelwood said Patel called NAGR’s office after her initial contact with Brown, though Brown told The Nerve he “couldn’t find anyone (in his office) who took the call.”
In an email about 4 p.m. Wednesday to NAGR members – a copy of which was provided to The Nerve – Brown said H.3945 would “require NAGR to turn over your information to the state if we mail the results of our candidate survey program or candidate voting records within sixty days of an election.”
“The elite political class wants to hide their votes and shut us down,” Brown wrote, vowing that “we will never turn over our donor’s private information to the state.”
“H. 3945 not only targets the National Association for Gun Rights, but any non-profit organization that informs you of the position of the candidates on the issues that are important to you,” he continued. “That violates free speech.”
Under Section 38 of H. 3945, a person who “makes an electioneering communication” would have to report, among other things, to the State Ethics Commission the “top five donors to the reporting person.”
An “electioneering communication” was defined under Section 31 as “any broadcast, cable, or satellite communication or mass postal mailing or telephone bank” that “refers to a clearly identified candidate for elected office” and is publicly “aired or distributed within sixty days prior to a general election or within thirty days prior to a primary for that office.”
“That’s why it’s critical that you contact Governor Nikki Haley TODAY and insist she publicly oppose H 3945, the Anti-Gun and Anti-Free Speech Bill,” Brown wrote in his email to members, contending that Haley “promised to sign the bill – before she even had a chance to read it!” A phone number for the Governor’s Office was provided in the email.
“While you are at it,” Brown continued in his email, “please contact your state Senator as well and tell them you oppose H 3945, the Anti-Free Speech Bill.”
As it turned out, time ran out for passage of the bill, and it died at 5 p.m. Thursday – the end of this year’s legislative session – on the Senate floor after speeches by Sens. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, and Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, which followed a four-hours-plus filibuster on an unrelated bill by Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson.
“The bill (H. 3945) is dead so I’ll assume this story is dead,” Hazelwood, of the Ethics Commission, said in her written response Friday morning to The Nerve.
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.