Lawmakers’ Holy Land Trip Raises Ethics Questions

December 22, 2014

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

jerusalem israel

‘It’s about building relationships,’ says lawmakers about junket funded with campaign cash. No doubt, no doubt.

Some S.C. lawmakers apparently view themselves these days as foreign policy advisors and economic development prospectors with the country of Israel – and didn’t see any ethical problems with collectively spending thousands in campaign funds to visit the Holy Land this month.

Eleven House members and one senator took the 12,500-mile round trip to Israel, led by Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, according to a recent story in The State newspaper. Clemmons said in the story that lawmakers used their campaign funds to cover the visit, though he didn’t provide any cost figures.

Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, told The Nerve last week that the total cost of the Dec. 7-17 trip for him and his wife was about $3,600, with his portion covered with campaign funds and her share paid with personal funds. Smith said several other lawmakers took their spouses on the trip.

State ethics law (Section 8-13-1348 of the S.C. Code of Laws) bans lawmakers from using campaign funds for personal expenses.

Under state law, the 124-member House and 46-member Senate police themselves for ethical violations through their respective ethics committees. That includes defining for themselves what constitutes legal uses of campaign funds related to their legislative office or campaigns.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, John Crangle, executive director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause of South Carolina, said the Israel trip shows that state law needs to be changed to limit spending campaign funds for campaign purposes only.

“The Legislature will try to construe it (current state ethics law) for any purpose as a pretext to raiding their campaign accounts,” he said.

Clemmons did not respond to several phone messages last week from The Nerve seeking comment on the Israel trip. Smith and another lawmaker who went on the trip, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, told The Nerve they believe it was proper to spend campaign funds on the trip – and were cleared to do so by House Ethics Committee staff.

“When you look at it from an economic development standpoint, the state has a great role in that,” Smith said. “One of the things we talked about from a policy-making standpoint is, are we business-friendly?”

Asked how much sightseeing was done by the legislative delegation, Smith replied, “We spent some time, but percentage-wise, I couldn’t tell you,” though he added, “There probably was not one place we went to that we did not deal with issues of economic development – except maybe the boat ride on the Sea of Galilee.”

Smith, the House Operations and Management Committee chairman, said the delegation visited Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and a number of other cities and towns throughout Israel, adding the daily itinerary was “packed.”

Smith, who noted he visited Israel three years ago after the House passed a resolution supporting the country’s right to self-governance and self-defense, said delegation members also discussed American-Israeli issues with Israeli officials. He pointed out, for example, S.C. lawmakers’ opposition to the Obama administration’s position supporting restrictions on building settlements within what he described as Israel’s “sovereign borders.”

Smith said that according to Clemmons, the legislative delegation was invited to Israel by the country’s legislative body, called the Knesset. He added he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his first trip to Israel.

“It’s about building relationships and making sure we move forward as a state and a region,” Rutherford told The Nerve, adding that Clemmons has developed sister-city and sister-university arrangements between the Palmetto State and Israel. “It’s about Columbia … doesn’t get left behind.”

Rutherford, who noted the trip was his second to Israel, said he didn’t know how much his latest visit cost but confirmed it was covered with campaign funds.

Crangle questioned Smith’s and Rutherford’s reasons for taking the trip.

“If it’s determined that the Legislature has an economic development function in South Carolina, then they should use state funds,” Crangle said, adding, though, “I don’t think it’s the function of the Legislature to recruit new business. I think it’s a function of the executive branch.”

As for S.C. lawmakers discussing American-Israeli relations with Israeli officials while on the trip, Crangle, an attorney, said, “They can’t purport to have any authority under the U.S. Constitution to do what they did. States don’t have foreign policy powers. They can’t declare war. They can’t make treaties.”

Besides Clemmons, Smith and Rutherford, other lawmakers who went on the trip included, according toThe State newspaper story, Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown; and Reps. Heather Crawford, R-Horry; MaryGail Douglas, D-Fairfield; Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort; Raye Felder, R-York; Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg; Mike Gambrell, R-Anderson; Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown; and David Weeks, D-Sumter. Weeks and Gambrell are members of the House Ethics Committee.

Smith said Clemmons, a lawyer and the House Rules Committee chairman, informed him that House Ethics Committee attorney Steve Davidson had issued a written informal opinion clearing the trip for the participating House members.

Davidson did not respond to a written message last week from The Nerve seeking comment. Contacted byThe Nerve, Ethics Committee Chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, who did not go on the trip, said “attorney-client privilege” prevents Davidson from publicly revealing informal opinions given to House members – or even privately revealing that advice to Ethics Committee members who didn’t request the opinions. But lawmakers who request informal opinions can release them publicly if they want, he said.

“Just because an (Ethics Committee) attorney says you can do it doesn’t mean you can do it, but it is a defense in intent,” Bingham said.

Bingham said formal advisory opinions issued by the 10-member Ethics Committee are the official positions of the committee and are matters of public record. He couldn’t immediately recall any formal opinions that addressed House members spending campaign funds for “legislative” overseas trips.

The Nerve reported last month that the House and Senate Ethics committees in recent years have issued relatively few formal opinions.

Clemmons in The State newspaper article said that among other events during the Israel trip this month, the legislative delegation attended an investors’ summit while working with the “South Carolina-Israel Collaboration.” That initiative, which is aimed at strengthening business and research ties between Israel and South Carolina, is a project managed by the Atlanta-based, not-for-profit organization known as Conexx, formerly called the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce, Southeast Region, according to its website.

The website lists 12 Israeli companies in South Carolina, which works out to be an average of one for each legislator who attended this month’s trip to Israel.

Shai Robkin, president and CEO of Conexx, told The Nerve last week although members of his organization were in Israel this month at the same time as the S.C. legislative delegation, his traveling group, which included a representative from the S.C. Department of Commerce, was “not involved with the political delegation at all.”

“We don’t meet with politicians at all in Israel,” he said, noting that members of his organization have made an annual trip to Israel since 2011 as part of the South Carolina-Israel Collaboration. “We’re not interested in politicians.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.