House member tries to get tax dollars to buy land from nonprofit he founded

March 23, 2018

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

As the S.C. House debate last week on the $28 billion-plus state budget dragged into the evening, Rep. Bill Bowers filed an amendment seeking to direct $400,000 for the purchase of 107 acres next to Lake Warren State Park in Hampton County.

“This is a win-win all on the state side,” the longtime Hampton County Democrat told his House colleagues in pitching the proposed appropriation through the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

What Bowers didn’t immediately reveal was that he is the founder of and spokesman for the Hampton County Land Trust, a nonprofit organization that owns the 107 acres next to the state park. That information came out only when Bowers was questioned during the floor debate by another House member.

Hampton County land records list two trust-owned parcels at Lake Warren with a total market value of $189,600 – which represents less than half of the $400,000 proposed appropriation.

No one during the March 13 debate accused Bowers, a House member since 1997, of doing anything wrong. State ethics law bans lawmakers and other public officials from using their office 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.”

Bowers isn’t the only lawmaker who has tried during this year’s budget process to direct public funds to pet projects. The Nerve last week revealed that three House members – Charleston County Republicans William Cogswell and Mike Sottile, and Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville – earlier filed budget earmarks totaling nearly $1 million for nonprofits they support.

Cogswell sits on the board of trustees of one of the nonprofits. The Republican-controlled House last week approved all three earmark requests.

S.C. Secretary of State records show that Bowers registered the Hampton County Land Trust in 2003, which is listed by the state as being in good standing. The state agency told The Nerve this week it had no record of recent federal income-disclosure forms filed by the nonprofit with the agency.

Shannon Wiley, the agency’s chief lawyer, in an email said a nonprofit isn’t required to file annual financial reports with the state if it is “inactive or otherwise not soliciting (contributions) in a given fiscal year.”

During the March 13 House floor debate, Bowers said the land trust hasn’t been “very active because we wanted to give the state the opportunity to do this (purchase the 107 acres).”

Asked by another House member to identify officers of the trust, Bowers said that “my name is probably on there somewhere,” and identified three other board members, though not by name.

Bowers didn’t say during the debate whether he receives any income from the land trust. He didn’t list his ties with the trust on his last five annual income-disclosure statements filed with the State Ethics Commission, though current state law would require disclosure only if he received income from the trust.

On his 2017 income-disclosure statement – the most recently available – Bowers listed $38,293 in salary and expenses as a House member, and $94,000 in salary from the University of South Carolina. He is listed on the USC-Beaufort’s website as a visiting professor of business administration.

A 2017 House Ethics Committee advisory opinion said House members can serve on the boards of charitable nonprofits, though they must disclose the source and type of “any compensation received from the non-profit for service as a board member.”

The opinion also said that if the nonprofit would receive funding under a section or proviso of the state budget bill, the House member must abstain from voting on that section or proviso if the representative received “any compensation outside of ordinary expense reimbursement.”

During the March 13 House floor debate, Bowers said the land trust bought the 107 acres next to Lake Warren State Park “so that an undesirable housing development would not go next door, just 400 to 500 yards from this lake, right up to the park boundary.”

Bowers said the proposed $400,000 appropriation would be “committed to further capital projects to enhance tourism in the Lowcountry and the state of South Carolina,” though he didn’t provide specifics.

Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Beaufort, and chairman of a House Ways and Means budget subcommittee, made a motion to table Bowers’ amendment, noting the request was rejected earlier at the subcommittee level because “it’s just not the right time to do it.” That motion failed by a 56-50 vote, with Bowers voting against tabling it.

But a second vote on the amendment itself failed by a 76-28 vote, with Bowers voting for it.

Bowers did not immediately return a phone message Thursday from The Nerve seeking comment.

The state budget is now in the Senate. Any differences with the House version would have to be resolved by a joint conference committee before being sent to the governor.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve. 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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