October 7, 2022

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

Senator-lawyers support bill that could fatten their wallets

By RICK BRUNDRETT

Four senator-lawyers who, or their law firms, received workers’ compensation fees last year are co-sponsoring a bill that would allow employees to file workers’ compensation claims involving COVID-19 vaccines.

Three of the lawmakers sit on a Senate committee that will consider the bill and also screens candidates for the seven-member Workers’ Compensation Commission (WCC), which renders decisions and approves attorney fees in workers’ compensation cases.

State ethics law generally bans lawmakers and other politicians from using their office to financially benefit themselves, family members or business associates, though legislators over the years have relied on a legal loophole to push bills that pose potential conflicts of interest.

Last week, Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, who is an attorney, introduced a bill that would allow workers’ compensation claims to be filed in cases involving employees who died or were sickened from employer-mandated COVID-19 vaccines.

Malloy reported a total of $175,266 in legal fees earned in 2020 from workers’ compensation cases, according to his annual income-disclosure statement filed in March with the State Ethics Commission. Two other senator-lawyers who are co-sponsors of the bill – Sens. Scott Talley, R-Spartanburg, and Michael Johnson, R-York – reported a total of $216,671 and $140,233, respectively, in workers’ compensation fees received last year, their income-disclosure statements show.

In addition, another co-sponsor, Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, reported a total of $165,000 in workers’ compensation fees earned in 2020 through his law firm, according to his income-disclosure statement. Contacted today by The Nerve, Davis, who is the new Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee chairman, said he doesn’t handle workers’ compensation cases, but that a former law partner “did a lot of” those cases, though he added he didn’t know if “any of my remaining partners do.”

The Nerve on Monday sent written messages to Malloy and Talley seeking comment but received no response. Johnson, who won his first election in November to his Senate seat, didn’t reply to phone messages left at his law firm and State House office.

Legal fees in workers’ compensation cases are approved by the WCC, whose members are screened and confirmed by state senators. By law, the governor appoints the commission, including its chairman, with the “advice and consent” of the Senate.

Commissioners, who serve six-year terms, make a base $167,239 annually, according to the state salary database. Current WCC chairman T. Scott Beck’s salary is $172,258.

Workers’ compensation insurance carried by employers is intended to cover qualified medical expenses and a percentage of wages for workers hurt on the job. Individual WCC members can conduct hearings at the request of injured employees if, for example, employers deny that a claimed injury occurred during work hours, or if injured workers don’t believe they received all of the available wage or medical benefits.

Under state ethics law, lawmakers generally can’t use their position 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.”

But legislators years ago included a loophole known as the “large-class exception,” which allows them to support bills that can benefit their businesses if the legislation also would help similar businesses equally.

The Nerve repeatedly has pointed out bills that pose potential conflicts of interest for lawmakers who authored or co-sponsored the legislation.

The Nerve in 2018 revealed that a total of nearly $4 million in legal fees from workers’ compensation cases was paid out the year before to 21 lawyer-legislators or their law firms, including Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, who reported a collective $540,948 in legal fees earned in 2017, according to his annual income-disclosure statement.

Rankin, who reported $9,583 in workers’ compensation fees received in 2020, chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is responsible for screening candidates for the WCC. The Senate bill introduced last week was referred to his committee.

Malloy, Talley and Johnson also serve on the 22-member Judiciary Committee, as does newly elected senator-lawyer Billy Garrett, R-McCormick, who is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.

 

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