Line between Lobbyist and Campaign Consultant Blurred for Rep. Sandifer

July 1, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Bill SandiferConsider this ethical sticky wicket:

A state politician hires registered lobbyists as election campaign “consultants.” Some of the lobbyists’ clients donate money to the politician’s campaign during the period when the lobbyists acted as the politician’s consultants.

Illegal?  Not necessarily – at least in the Palmetto State.

In a review of state lobbying and campaign expenditure records for the 2010 and 2012 elections, The Nerve found that S.C. Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee and chairman of the House Labor, Commerce and Industry (LCI) Committee, hired two in-state lobbyists – Jason Puhlasky and Christopher Lindsay – as campaign consultants, paying them a total of $17,453 during the period.

The Nerve’s review also found that several lobbying clients of Puhlasky and Lindsay, as well as political action committees affiliated with their clients, collectively contributed $8,000 to Sandifer’s 2010 and 2012 re-election campaigns.

Sandifer, who has been in the House since 1995, declined comment Friday when contacted by The Nerveabout his use of lobbyists as campaign consultants.

“I’m not going to talk to you,” he said. “I do not speak with anyone from your organization.”

The Nerve reported in May 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.

State ethics law allows an elected official to hire a campaign consultant who also is a lobbyist, though the lobbyist-campaign consultant cannot “facilitate a contribution from his lobbying clients to his campaign client,” Cathy Hazelwood, chief lawyer and deputy director at the State Ethics Commission, said last week in a written response to The Nerve.

The Ethics Commission has no authority to investigate or discipline state lawmakers for ethical violations. Instead, legislators police themselves through their respective House and Senate Ethics committees.

Contacted Sunday, Puhlasky, an associate at Parker Poe Consulting in Columbia, told The Nerve that before he first worked for Sandifer as a campaign consultant in 2010, he checked with the State Ethics Commission, which he said informed him that it would not be in violation of state law to work as a consultant as long as Sandifer paid him. He said if he had offered his consulting services to Sandifer for free, the lawmaker might have felt obligated in return to show favoritism to his lobbying clients.

“Once they pay me, I’m just like any business person,” Puhlasky said. “You don’t owe me any favors because you’ve already paid me.”

The website of Parker Poe Consulting, a subsidiary of the Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein law firm, describes Puhlasky as having “more than 14 years of experience in political campaigns, lobbying, grassroots networking and media relations.” The consulting staff includes Dan Cooper, an Anderson County Republican and former House Ways and Means Committee chairman who left the Legislature in 2011 to join the firm, as reported then by The Nerve.

Sandifer’s campaign records show that he paid Puhlasky a total of $13,453 for consulting services in 2010 and 2012. Puhlasky’s total lobbying income in 2010 and 2012 was $188,037 and $212,836, respectively; his lobbying income through May 31 of this year was $149,166, records show.

On average, Puhlasky has represented more than a dozen clients yearly since 2009, including Bank of America; PepsiCo; Republic Services of South Carolina, Waste Management of South Carolina; Tanger Factory Outlet Centers; the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America; and the South Carolina Beer Wholesalers, Cable Television and Medical associations, lobbying records show.

From 2010 through 2012, four of Puhlasky’s clients and a group with ties to another client, including Waste Management and the Bank of America Corp. Political Action Committee, contributed a total of $6,000 to Sandifer’s re-election campaigns, according to campaign records.

Puhlasky told The Nerve that he doesn’t have “anything to do with political contributions,” noting, “My lobbying clients make up their own mind on who to give to.”

As a lobbyist, Puhlasky said he has met with Sandifer “occasionally” over the years, adding, “I haven’t had a lot of action in LCI in two to three years.”

Although he described himself as a “lobbyist and a campaign consultant – that’s what I do,” Puhlasky said he hadn’t been active as a consultant for more than four years – until the 2010 death of well-known political consultant Rod Shealy, who had done work previously for Sandifer.

“I would never been called in to do his campaign if Rod Shealy had not died,” Puhlasky said.

Asked if there were many lobbyists in South Carolina who also worked as campaign consultants, Puhlasky replied, “I actually thought I was the only one in the state until you told me.”

Contacted over the weekend by The Nerve, Lindsay, president of Columbia-based Lindsay & Associates, said his job as a lobbyist had nothing to do with his campaign-consulting services he offered in Sandifer’s 2012 re-election campaign.

“Bill and I are just personal friends, and I was just helping him with his campaign,” said Lindsay, who is black, adding, “Bill wanted to increase his numbers in the minority community, so he hired me.”

Lindsay was paid a total of $4,000 last year for his consulting work, according to Sandifer’s campaign-expenditure records. His total reported lobbying income in 2012 was $87,500; through May 31 of this year, he had earned $42,000, records show.

The Nerve’s review of state lobbying and campaign records posted on the Ethics Commission’s website found that two of Lindsay’s lobbying clients and a group affiliated with one of the clients –  AT&T Services Inc., SCANA Services Inc. and the SCANA Employee Political Action Committee – contributed a total of $2,000 last year to Sandifer’s re-election campaign.

When informed about the contributions, Lindsay said those companies and others contributed to Sandifer’s earlier campaigns “long before” he became a campaign consultant for the lawmaker.

Since 2009, Lindsay’s clients have included Wal-Mart; BMW Manufacturing Co.; Republic Services of South Carolina; and the South Carolina Bankers, Economic Developers’, Optometric and Primary Health Care associations, lobbying records show.

Lindsay and Puhlasky weren’t the only campaign consultants hired by Sandifer in his re-election bids in 2010 and 2012, records show, though the owners of two other consulting firms are not listed by the State Ethics Commission as current registered lobbyists.

Sandifer also paid $15,275.01 in last year’s re-election campaign to the Mullikin Law Firm in Camden for “campaign management,” according to his campaign expenditure records. Sandifer’s son, Wes Sandifer, is director of government affairs at the law firm, according to the firm’s website.

“In this position he provides invaluable client services in the Government arena,” the website says in describing Wes Sandifer.

Nerve intern Emily Dawes contributed to this story. Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.