Legislatively controlled panel OKs big raises for state agency heads

November 24, 2021

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Last week, a legislatively controlled committee quietly approved five-figure salary hikes for six state agency heads, including increases for two university presidents whose total annual compensation is much more than their state pay.

Medical University of South Carolina president David Cole received a $42,308, or 13.5%, raise from the state Agency Head Salary Commission (AHSC), bringing his state salary to $354,941, according to information from MUSC and the State Fiscal Accountability Authority (SFAA), an agency that provides administrative support to the AHSC.

The AHSC also approved a $23,009, or 10.6%, raise for Lander University president Richard Cosentino, bringing his state salary to $238,520, records show. His total compensation last year was at least $377,830, which besides his state salary included $122,319 from the university’s private fundraising arm and a $40,000 “housing supplement” from the university, according to his annual income-disclosure statement filed with the State Ethics Commission.

A Lander University spokeswoman didn’t respond to The Nerve’s written questions Tuesday about Cosentino’s current total compensation.

The total compensation last year for Cole, a surgeon and former chairman of MUSC’s surgery department, was $1,188,252, which included $694,859 in salary as a physician and income from the university’s private fundraising arm, according to MUSC spokeswoman Heather Woolwine and his annual income-disclosure statement.

The Nerve previously has reported about the growing college president millionaire’s club in South Carolina.

With the raise approved last week by the AHSC, Cole’s total compensation will grow to at least $1.23 million. In an email response Monday to The Nerve, Woolwine said his overall compensation “falls below the 50th percentile” for presidents at similar universities, which she noted was $1.32 million based on an “independent, national compensation review for the president’s role.”

“Of note, Dr. Cole has been president for 8 years and would be considered ‘experienced’ when determining compensation figures,” Woolwine added.

It also doesn’t hurt that a powerful lawmaker who is a key member of the AHSC has ties to MUSC.

Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, who is chairman of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, was the acting AHSC chairman at last Thursday’s meeting during which the state salary raise was approved for Cole, according to information from the SFAA. Smith’s father, Dr. G. Murrell Smith Sr., who received his medical degree from MUSC, has been a longtime member of the university’s Board of Trustees; under state law, lawmakers elect 14 members of the 16-member board.

As the Ways and Means chairman, Rep. Smith has the authority under state law to appoint four of the 11 members of the AHSC. He served as the acting AHSC chairman last week following the death of longtime Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who had been the chairman and controlled four appointments to the panel as the Senate Finance Committee chairman.

Smith is a general partner in a medical supply business, Reliable Medical Equipment of South Carolina; their clients last year included lobbyist principals in the medical field, though not MUSC, according to his annual income-disclosure statement filed in March. Those records also show that the Smith Robinson law firm in which Smith, an attorney, is a partner received a total of $4,972 last year from the Medical University Hospital for legal services.

The MUSC board also has ties to other current or former lawmakers: Board members include Michael Stavrinakis, brother of Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston; William Bingham Sr., father of former Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington; and ex-Rep. James Battle, D-Marion.

In South Carolina, the Legislature exerts considerable authority over public colleges and universities, including largely controlling the appointment of members to the schools’ governing boards, as The Nerve has pointed out.

Besides giving Cole and Cosentino raises, the AHSC last Thursday also approved pay hikes for four other state agency heads, according to information provided by the SFAA to The Nerve. Following is a list of those officials’ new salaries, with the amount and percentage of the raises from their previous salaries as of Sept. 30 in parentheses, according to SFAA and S.C. Department of Administration records:

  • Frank Rainwater, Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office: $228,672 ($44,571, 24.2%)
  • Peggy Boykin, Public Employee Benefit Authority: $236,625 ($27,525, 13.1%)
  • Darline Graham, Commission for the Blind: $118,314 ($22,434, 23.3%)
  • Katie Harrison, Higher Education Tuition Grants Commission: $94,330 ($12,304, 15%)

The AHSC last approved raises for agency heads on July 1, as The Nerve reported then. S.C. Department of Transportation secretary Christy Hall, for example, received a $46,768 pay hike, bringing her salary to $298,000.

In comparison, the state’s per-capita income as of March was $47,502, according to the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office.

Earlier this month, Reps. John King, D-York; Annie McDaniel, D-Fairfield; and Wendy Brawley, D-Richland, prefiled a bill that would require separate majorities in the 124-member House and 46-member Senate to give final approval to any pay raises for state agency heads recommended by the AHSC, as The Nerve reported.

The bill likely will be referred to the Ways and Means Committee chaired by Smith.

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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