Lawmakers usually find it easy getting other government gigs

March 6, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Ex-S.C. Rep. Mike Pitts’ decision this week to drop his quest to become the next director of the state land preservation agency is a rarity compared to the steady stream of former lawmakers who glided into high-paying government jobs.

The Laurens County Republican, who last year was the House Ethics Committee chairman and had been in the House for 16 years, announced his resignation from the Legislature in early December, effective Jan. 3, after accepting an offer from the state Conservation Bank board to become its next director. Under state law, eight of the bank’s 14 board members are appointed by the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore.

The position had been vacant since former longtime director Marvin Davant retired from his $97,135 job at the end of 2017. A version of a bill last year dealing with the Conservation Bank would have banned lawmakers from being hired for the director’s job within a year after leaving office, but that provision was removed from the final version.

Pitts’ confirmation in the Senate, however, ran into opposition primarily from newly elected Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, a private-practice attorney and former chief prosecutor for Richland and Kershaw counties. In a letter Monday informing Doug Harper, the conservation bank board’s director, that he was withdrawing his nomination, Pitts said he was “not prepared for the aggressive inquisition” during a recent hearing before the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Still, ex-lawmakers typically don’t have much trouble getting government jobs. Take, for example, former longtime Senate president pro tempore and Judiciary Committee chairman Glenn McConnell, who was first elected to the Senate in 1980.

The Charleston County Republican – for years considered one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers – was tapped in 2014 to become president of the College of Charleston, where he had earned his bachelor’s degree though he had no prior work experience in higher education.

Under state law, the College of Charleston president is chosen by the school’s 20-member board of trustees, 17 members of which are elected by the Legislature. When he announced his retirement from the college last year, the then-70-year-old McConnell was making at least $300,000 annually, plus another $48,515 in state retirement benefits, State Ethics Commission records show.

In 2012, McConnell, who then was the lieutenant governor and Senate president, was a member of the governing board of the Legislative Council, which drafts bills for lawmakers. That year, the council’s governing board, which under state law is made up of the secretary of state, Senate president, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman or his designee, House speaker and House Judiciary chairman, chose just-retired Rep. Jim Harrison, who had been the House Judiciary chairman, to become the council’s next director and state code commissioner at a reported starting salary of $146,000.

The Richland County Republican, who has been in the House for 23 years, was suspended from his commissioner’s job in October 2017 after the state grand jury indicted him for alleged public corruption offenses while he was a lawmaker. Last October, a Richland County jury convicted Harrison on several charges, and he was sentenced to 18 months in prison, though he remains free on an appeal bond.

Harrison and McConnell aren’t the only recent examples of lawmakers who landed other government jobs after their tenures in the General Assembly.

After 20 years in the Legislature, former Republican Sen. Greg Ryberg of Aiken County, who was the Senate Labor Commerce and Industry Committee chairman, retired in 2012 and was hired in 2013 for a $161,000 job as chief operating officer with the state Retirement System Investment Commission, a position he held until the following year when a permanent executive director’s position was created.

Democrat Anton Gunn as a House member from 2008-10 representing Richland and Kershaw counties before becoming the director of external affairs for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under then-President Barack Obama. In 2015, he started as the Medical University of South Carolina’s health chief diversity officer; his current annual salary is $283,000, according to a university spokeswoman.

Other lawmakers have left the Legislature to become lobbyists. The Nerve reported last week at least four former Republican House members – Kenny Bingham, Dan Cooper, Andy Patrick and Mike Ryhal – in recent years became lobbyists shortly after the required one-year “cooling off” period. They are among at least 14 ex-legislators who registered as lobbyists this year with the State Ethics Commission.

Making money in and out of office

Over the years, plenty of ex-lawmakers who are lawyers have found an easy path to the bench – courtesy of their legislative colleagues. South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where their legislatures play primary roles in electing judges.

Current Supreme Court chief justice Donald Beatty and Court of Appeals chief judge James Lockemy are former legislators, as well as three other Court of Appeals judges and at least 12 full-time or fill-in circuit and family court judges, court records show. The fill-in circuit judges include former Supreme Court chief justice Jean Toal, a former House member who went directly from the Legislature to the state’s top court in 1988 and retired from that position at the end of 2015 after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 72.

In 2012, lawmakers created nine new judicial seats and the next year filled two of them with ex-legislators while electing the wife of a sitting legislator to another judgeship, as The Nerve reported then.

Beatty is asking lawmakers for a 33-percent pay hike next fiscal year, which starts July 1, for himself and other appellate, circuit and family court judges. If enacted by lawmakers, who are the process of drafting the 2019-20 state budget, Beatty’s annual salary would jump to $208,000, while associate Supreme Court justices would make $198,095. New salaries for family, circuit and Court of Appeals judges would be set at $183,238, $188,190 and $193,143, respectively, a review by The Nerve found.

Lawyer-lawmakers don’t have to leave the Legislature to make money through state government. The Nerve, for example, reported last year that a total of nearly $4 million in legal fees from workers’ compensation cases was paid out in 2017 to 21 lawyer-legislators or their law firms – fees usually approved by commissioners who are screened and confirmed by state senators. The group included Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee responsible for screening Workers’ Compensation Commission candidates.

Other lawmakers currently hold well-paying government jobs, as The Nerve reported last year, including:

  • Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley, who received about $258,000 in 2017 as executive director and CEO of the Charleston County Aviation Authority;
  • Rep. Jackie Hayes, D-Dillon, who made nearly $100,000 in 2017 as Dillon High School’s longtime head football coach and athletic director for Dillon and Lake View high schools; and
  • Rep. Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg, who took in about $82,000 in 2017 as vice president of economic development at Spartanburg Community College.

On its face, those positions would seem to violate the S.C. Constitution’s ban on dual office holding. But the state Supreme Court – whose members are elected by the Legislature – sided with lawmakers in a dual-office-holding case in 2013, ruling that Sen. Hugh Leatherman’s and then-Rep. Chip Limehouse’s membership on the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank board was related to their legislative duties and fell within an “ex officio” exception established in earlier rulings.

Although ex-Rep. Pitts failed in his bid to get a top job this year at a state agency, lawmakers aren’t likely to abandon their longstanding practice of pushing government jobs for their colleagues. In January, Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said in a Tweet that fellow Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, a Clemson University graduate who earned his law degree from the University of South Carolina, would be “an excellent choice” as the next USC president.

“He is without a doubt the person for the job,” Peeler wrote.

The search began after current USC president Harris Pastides announced in October that he would be stepping down this year after more than a decade in the position. He received a total of more than $1 million in income in 2017 from USC and university foundations, according to his most-recent income-disclosure report filed with the State Ethics Commission.

Under state law, his successor will be chosen by the 20-member USC Board of Trustees, 16 members of which are appointed by the Legislature.

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.

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