LCI Chairman Spends $18K on Conferences; Details Lacking

October 6, 2014

Investigative Reports

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Rep. Bill SandiferOver the last three years, state Rep. Bill Sandifer spent nearly $18,000 in campaign funds on credit card payments for unspecified conference expenses, The Nerve found in a review of the Oconee County Republican’s campaign expenditure reports.

And that’s apparently on top of approximately $9,500 that the sponsors of 12 mostly in-state, coastal conferences collectively spent over the same period on the chairman of the powerful House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee (LCI), who reported speaking at their events, Sandifer’s annual income disclosure reports show.

Because Sandifer’s quarterly campaign expenditure reports filed with the State Ethics Commission list no specifics about his conference expenses, it’s unknown whether the total $17,716 he spent on credit card payments for those expenses were related to the 12 conferences he reported on his income-disclosure reports, known as statements of economic interests.

How campaign funds should be used by elected officials is one of the areas to be examined by a special House committee appointed by acting House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, in the wake of criminal indictments issued against suspended Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston. A panel of the study committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday to begin discussing changes to the state’s ethics laws and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Reform advocates, including the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – contend that not only should all state business expenses be itemized and subject to the FOIA, but also that special interest groups shouldn’t be allowed to pay for state business for any state official.

Harrell, who was first elected to the House in 1992 and became the House speaker in 2005, was charged last month with six counts under the state Ethics Act of using campaign funds for personal expenses, two counts of misconduct in office, and one count of false campaign-expense reporting under the Ethics Act. He remains free on bond pending his trial, which hasn’t been scheduled.

No one has accused Sandifer, who was first elected to the House in 1994, of doing anything improper. As the LCI chairman, he is the gatekeeper of business-related bills that go through the 124-member House.

Sandifer did not respond Friday to three phone messages left by The Nerve at his home, business message service and State House office; or to a written list of questions.

“I do not speak with anyone from your organization,” Sandifer told a Nerve reporter for a July 2013 story that revealed that Sandifer had hired two in-state lobbyists for the 2010 and 2012 elections, paying them a total of $17,453; and that several clients of the lobbyists, as well as political action committees affiliated with the clients, collectively contributed $8,000 to Sandifer’s campaigns.

State law allows elected officials to hire campaign consultants who are lobbyists as long as the lobbyist-consultants don’t arrange contributions from their lobbyist clients to the officials.

Besides that issue, The Nerve also reported in May 2013 that Sandifer, a licensed funeral director and embalmer, has sponsored 10 bills since 2002 – eight of which became law – that focused on governing “pre-need” funeral services.

This year, The Nerve revealed how Sandifer, while vice chairman of a legislatively controlled screening panel that nominates members of the S.C. Public Service Commission, grilled a female candidate for the commission during a 2013 screening hearing, asking her, among other things, how her election to the commission would affect her three underage children. The woman wasn’t nominated, despite being rated as “outstanding” and nominated in an earlier election.

The Nerve on Friday sent written questions to staff attorneys with the House and Senate Ethics committees, which by law police their respective members for ethics violations, about whether any formal opinions have been issued on the use of campaign funds by lawmakers for conferences. No replies were received by publication of this story

In a written response Friday to The Nerve, Herb Hayden, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, which has jurisdiction over elected state – except lawmakers – and local officials, said campaign funds can be used for conference expenses if the conference is “related to the campaign or is a conference which the elected official’s agency would normally pay for.”

Sandifer’s campaign expenditure reports show that of the total $17,716.72 in campaign funds used for credit card payments for conference expenses, $7,240.64 was spent in 2011, $5,700.74 in 2012 and $4,775.34 last year. No such payments were listed through June of this year.

The single-largest payment – $3,629.69 – was made on Sept. 21, 2012, followed by $3,462.31 on Sept. 19, 2011; separate entries of $1,842.45 and $1,130.97 on Sept. 24, 2013; and $1,081.97 on Oct. 28, 2013, records show. The smallest-listed payment was $32.13 on July 28, 2011.

Twenty-one entries for conference expenses over the three-year period were listed on Sandifer’s campaign reports; the credit card payments were for American Express and the Bankcard Center cards, records show. It’s unknown whether those credit cards were Sandifer’s personal cards or cards issued for his campaign.

Besides conference expenses, Sandifer also spent a total of about $7,100 over the three-year period on credit card payments for various other expenses, including nearly $2,800 for office expenditures and another approximately $1,500 for unspecified “staff” or “worker” expenses.

Sandifer’s annual income disclosure reports list that he gave speeches at the following conferences from 2011 through 2013, with the amounts below paid by conference sponsors:

  • March 24, 2011, Isle of Palms – $235.48; South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance;
  • July 14, 2011, Myrtle Beach – $409, Home Builders Association of South Carolina;
  • July 24, 2011, Charleston – $713, South Carolina Beer Wholesalers Association;
  • Nov. 30, 2011, Kiawah Island – $1,071.31,  South Carolina Alliance of Health Plans;
  • July 14, 2012, Hilton Head Island – $1,212.24, South Carolina Association of Convenience Stores;
  • July 29, 2012, Hilton Head Island – $548, South Carolina Beer Wholesalers Association;
  • Sept. 9, 2012, St. Simons Island, Ga. – $425, South Carolina Financial Services Association;
  • Nov. 28, 2012, Kiawah Island – $1,079.31, South Carolina Alliance of Health Plans;
  • July 15, 2013, Isle of Palms – $1,356.09, Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina;
  • Sept. 7, 2013, Charleston – $476.98, South Carolina Financial Services Association;
  • Nov. 7, 2013, Asheville, N.C. – $847.08, Injured Workers Advocates; and
  • Dec. 4, 2013, Kiawah Island – $1,117.11, South Carolina Alliance of Health Plans

The total amount paid by all sponsors was $9,490.60, though the types of expenses covered aren’t specified in the income disclosure reports. Under state law, lobbyist principals can cover lawmakers’ conference expenses, though they must make their invitations to the General Assembly as a group; the House or Senate chambers; or legislative committees, subcommittees or caucuses.

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