Davis: Sembler Attorneys Tried to Hire Me

March 11, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveA state senator who opposes millions of dollars in tax breaks proposed for a large retail developer says attorneys for the company offered to hire him after he expressed his opposition to the incentives.

S.C. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, made the assertion on the floor of the Senate this afternoon.

Davis spoke out when the Senate took up a bill that would grant the tax breaks to the Florida-based Sembler Co. to build a tony shopping mall in the Lowcountry.

Sembler says it will pull the plug on the project if the company doesn’t get the subsidies.

The estimated value of the tax breaks ranges from about $22 million to nearly $175 million. If approved, that money would otherwise go into the state’s general fund, which has been decimated by cuts during the recession.

Sembler has hired State House insiders, including a well-connected Columbia lobbying firm, to grease the wheels of the legislative process in an effort to snare the tax breaks.

Davis, a real estate lawyer, told his Senate colleagues that Sembler attempted to obtain his legal services after he aggressively came out against the proposed incentives last fall.

“A week later I got a call from the attorneys for Sembler offering to hire me to help them with their permitting: We need a good real estate lawyer that’s going to help us. You vote the way you want to up in Columbia, but we want to hire you to help us with some things,” Davis said.

“And I said, ‘Guys, you know, look, this is not a good idea, OK; that’s not a good idea.’”

Continuing, the senator said, “But this is the point I’m making: If this were such a good deal, if this were good for the economy, they wouldn’t need to have offers like that, they wouldn’t need to hire lobbyists, they wouldn’t need to have big money taking the field. That’s not the way to make decisions for South Carolina. South Carolina is not for sale. This General Assembly is not for sale.”

The Nerve subsequently called Sembler’s corporate office in St. Petersburg, Fla., for a response. The call was transferred to Helen Camp, who said she works with Greg Sembler, chief executive officer of the company.

Camp said he was not available and she would relay a message to him.

Greg Sembler did not return the call prior to this story being posted.

After Davis spoke against the bill, the Senate voted to adjourn debate on it until next week.

When and if the Senate takes it back up, Davis vowed to lay out in great detail why it is “such a bad bill.” He said his remarks today were merely a thumbnail sketch of the legislation’s weaknesses.

Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Jasper, is sponsoring the bill.

The incentives would flow to the Sembler Co. in the form of a rebated portion of sales-tax revenue generated at the mall, named Okatie Crossings. Pitched as an upscale shopping destination, it would be located off Interstate-95 near the towns of Bluffton and Hardeeville.

Before Davis spoke, Pinckney took to the Senate floor to make his case for the bill. He said Okatie Crossings would result in a combined $450 million impact on the state and local economies.

The site of the proposed mall contributes nothing to the area or the state now, he said. But if the mall is built it will, among other things, result in $6 million “in new taxes generated for the state of South Carolina.”

Pinckney said some opponents of the tax breaks have asked why the state should award them. “Why not?” he countered. “And particularly if it won’t cost the state of South Carolina a dime.”

Davis said that is not the case. He noted that in the absence of the incentives, the refunded sales-tax revenue would be deposited in the state’s general fund to pay for core government functions, such as education and law enforcement, that have been cut because of the economic downturn.

Reach Ward at (803) 779-5022, ext. 117, or eric@scpolicycouncil.com.