Lawmakers making the green after getting green light from ethics panel

December 13, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Almost three years ago, the state House Ethics Committee quietly gave written approval to an unnamed House member who is an insurance agent to sell insurance policies to local disability boards and county hospitals.

The Jan. 25, 2017, “advisory opinion” also said the lawmaker didn’t have to abstain on voting on any matters related to two state agencies that provided funding to the local disability boards or county hospitals.

Last year, The Nerve revealed that state Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, an insurance agent and the then-chairman of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, reported receiving a total of nearly $39,000 in insurance commissions since 2015 from five disability service organizations that annually get millions in funding from the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs (DDSN) – one of the two state agencies cited in the 2017 advisory opinion.

The story also revealed that White reported to the State Ethics Commission receiving a total of about $28,000 in insurance-related payments from 2008 through 2016 from a county hospital that received funding from the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) – the other state agency cited in the 2017 advisory opinion.

No one accused White of any wrongdoing, though he was removed from the Ways and Means Committee just several weeks after the November 2018 story. He didn’t respond to a written message Wednesday from The Nerve seeking comment on the 2017 advisory opinion.

Former Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, now a Laurens County magistrate who in 2017 was the House Ethics Committee chairman, and current Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter, who is the committee’s vice-chairman, didn’t respond to written messages Wednesday asking whether White requested the 2017 opinion.

Asked the same question Thursday, Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, the current chairman of both the House Ethics and Ways and Means committees, said in a written response that the Ethics Committee is “never aware of who requested” advisory opinions because there is “attorney-client privilege” between the House member requesting the opinion and committee attorneys who draft the document, adding the lawyers “do not advise the Committee who actually requested the opinion.”

Asked if any House member ever waived the attorney-client privilege – which would allow the identity of the lawmaker to be made public – since he has been on the committee, Smith, an attorney, replied, “Not that I can recall.”

That means although advisory opinions are public records approved by elected committee members, the identities of the lawmakers requesting opinions likely will continue to remain secret.

State law allows legislators to police their own ethical behavior through their respective House and Senate Ethics committees. Over the years, the committees have liberally interpreted state ethics laws – to the benefit of lawmakers.

Take the 2017 advisory opinion involving the anonymous House member-insurance agent, for example.

In that case, the committee said the lawmaker would not violate state ethics law by selling insurance policies to local DDSN boards and county hospitals that receive legislatively approved funding through DDSN and DHHS, noting the legislator uses the “competitive bidding process to submit insurance proposals, and thus does not have an interest distinct from the general public.”

The committee, however, didn’t indicate whether it had verified that any competitive bidding involving the lawmaker was done.

It also said in the opinion that the House member didn’t have to abstain from voting on matters related to DDSN or DHHS because local DDSN boards and county hospitals “to whom he competitively sells insurance products do not receive direct budgetary funding from the South Carolina General Assembly.”

In recent years, the committee has made it easier for House members to make money from government agencies or put family members on their campaign payrolls. For example, in three 2017 and 2018 advisory opinions issued while ex-Rep. Pitts was the committee chairman, the panel gave approval to unnamed House members to:

  • Be employed with an unidentified county treasurer’s office in a county in which the member’s spouse was a county councilman. The committee noted it would be “good practice but it is not required for the Member to abstain from voting on a line item in the General Appropriations bill for local government.”
  • Represent, as an attorney, clients in state workers’ compensation claims, property condemnation claims with the S.C Department of Transportation, and unspecified “matters” in the state Office of Motor Vehicle Hearings. The committee said the member was prohibited from voting on state budget sections for those agencies, though as The Nerve has previously pointed out, lawmakers in those situations can vote on the state budget as a whole. The Nerve also has reported about how legislator-lawmakers or their law firms collectively have made millions in legal fees annually from state and local government agencies.
  • Pay a family member from campaign funds to work on the campaign, so long as the lawmaker paid the “fair market value for bona fide services rendered,” and maintained “signed documentation regarding the work performed by the family member.”

The Nerve also reviewed recent Senate Ethics Committee advisory opinions. That committee, though, formerly chaired by Sens. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, and Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley; and currently headed by Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester, has issued a total of only four opinions since 2015, none of which dealt with employment issues, online records show.

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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