Local charity billboard campaign features State House candidate

May 30, 2018

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

If you drive through the busy intersection of Pine Street and Country Club Road on Spartanburg’s south side, you can’t miss a billboard showing state Rep. Eddie Tallon with his arm around a smiling child and the words “Future Legislator” at the bottom.

On the surface, the billboard appears to be a feel-good endorsement of the nonprofit Boys & Girls Clubs of the Upstate, which has used similar signs in the past as part of a fundraising campaign.

But it’s also no secret that Tallon, a Spartanburg Republican who was first elected to the S.C House in 2010, is running for re-election this year. Given that, the billboard, which popped up recently and was scheduled to run for 30 days, raises questions about whether it functions as a veiled campaign advertisement and complies with state ethics law.

Consider:

  • The billboard uses the same logo as seen on Tallon’s campaign yard signs, minus the words “Working for you!” and “House District 33.”
  • Federal law bans nonprofits such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Upstate from supporting or opposing political candidates. Unlike the Tallon billboard, similar billboards authorized by the club prominently displayed the organization’s website address.
  • In his latest quarterly campaign report filed April 2 with the State Ethics Commission, Tallon listed a $1,500 payment to the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Upstate for “advertising.”
  • Under a 2016 written opinion by the House Ethics Committee, which interprets state ethics law for House members, Tallon can use campaign funds for advertising through a sponsorship with a nonprofit if it includes the member’s name and “public title,” or the candidate’s name and “public office sought.” But the Spartanburg billboard does not specify either Tallon’s “public title” or “public office sought.”

Tallon insists the billboard complies with state ethics law, pointing out the House Ethics Committee’s chief lawyer told him the sign is legal. That opinion was given on May 17, the same day The Nerve initially contacted Tallon about the sign, officials confirmed.

Tallon, a retired State Law Enforcement Division agent, wouldn’t directly answer when asked several times last week by The Nerve whether the billboard is a campaign ad.

“This was a sponsorship of the Boys & Girls Club of Spartanburg – $1,500 for a sponsorship of the Boys & Girls Club – and the kid (pictured with Tallon on the billboard) was from an elementary school that has a Boys & Girls Club,” Tallon said in an interview Thursday. “That’s the story, period.”

Asked about his relationship to the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Upstate, which serves Spartanburg and Cherokee counties, Tallon replied, “I had been out to Boys & Girls clubs, and spoken to Boys & Girls clubs, and visited with Boys & Girls clubs over the years that I have been in the Legislature.”

Tallon has had other ties with the nonprofit organization as a legislator, The Nerve found. In February 2014, for example, the Spartanburg County legislative delegation, which included Tallon, considered a request by the club to seek $750,000 in state funding to expand the organization’s after-school programs, according to delegation meeting minutes.

An early draft of the state budget that year specified “local Boys & Girls Clubs” as funding recipients, though the wording in the final version of the budget proviso, which has been renewed every year since then, was more generic, earmarking $700,000 to “support community partnerships whereby community organizations shall partner with local school districts to provide enrichment activities as part of after school programs or summer reading camps.”

Also, state comptroller general records show that since fiscal 2013, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Upstate has received a total of more than $7.5 million from the S.C. Department of Education. Agency spokesman Ryan Brown told The Nerve those funds came from a federal program promoting community learning centers that provide after-school activities primarily for students attending high-poverty and low-performing schools, and that federal money was used last year to supplement the state budget proviso funding.

Asked about the $750,000 state budget request in 2014 for the organization, Tallon replied, “I’m not aware of any specific money that I have gone out and tried to get … for the Boys & Girls Club of Spartanburg.”

He also said he didn’t know about the collective millions the club has received in recent years from the state education department.

In a May 17 email response to The Nerve, Greg Tolbert, president of the Spartanburg-headquartered organization, said the billboard featuring Tallon is part of a “billboard campaign,” which he noted is a “fundraising initiative for us.”

According to a flier Tolbert provided to The Nerve, a $1,500 sponsorship will get the sponsor one billboard for a month to promote “great career paths for young people”; in comparison, a sponsor can get 12 billboards for one month with a $15,000 contribution.

“Your sponsorship will help us educate the community, accomplish our mission, and fund our work with young people,” the flier reads, which also notes that each featured child will “get a mini-billboard for their room,” while the participating adults will “get one for their work area.”

The flier includes an example of a billboard that is similar to the Tallon sign with the words “Future Superintendent.” Unlike the Tallon billboard, however, that sign shows in large letters the website address of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Upstate.

The website as of Monday afternoon featured other examples of similar billboards promoting various future careers for children. But those signs, in contrast to the Tallon billboard, included the Boys & Girls Clubs’ website address.

Under the federal Internal Revenue Service Code, charitable nonprofits are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office,” according to the IRS website.

Steve Cloy, a sales manager with the Duncan-based Fairway Outdoor Advertising, which owns the billboard featuring Tallon, told The Nerve that the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Upstate paid for the Tallon sign, adding the club has been a “long-term advertiser.”

Asked whether the club received a reduced rate offered to charities and government agencies for public service announcements (PSAs), Cloy declined to respond, referring that question to Tolbert, who didn’t directly respond to that issue and other related follow-up written questions from The Nerve. Tallon declined to answer that question.

The Nerve recently wrote about the PSA program, run by former S.C. Department of Transportation commissioner John Hardee, through the Outdoor Advertising Association of South Carolina. The association is a lobbying trade group that receives thousands of state tax dollars annually for PSAs on billboards and signs statewide, though much of the revenue has been used to cover Hardee’s salary, as well as for lobbying expenses and political campaign contributions by the association.

Few advertising rules

If Tallon were running for a federal office and financed a billboard campaign, the sign would have to include a visible notice that the communication was paid for by the authorized campaign committee, according to the Federal Election Commission. Communications authorized by the candidate or campaign but paid by another person must identify the person who funded it, and state that it was authorized by the candidate or campaign.

South Carolina campaign law isn’t as specific. If a candidate, committee or other person pays for a “communication to voters supporting or opposing a public official, a candidate, or a ballot measure,” he must “place his name and address on the printed matter,” under the state law, which exempts campaign yard signs, buttons, balloons and “similar items.”

State law prohibits public officials and candidates from using campaign funds to “defray personal expenses which are unrelated to the campaign or the office if the candidate is an officeholder,” noting the funds can be used to “defray any ordinary expenses incurred in connection with an individual’s duties as a holder of elective office.”

But because of “apparent confusion over application” of that law, the state House Ethics Committee in September 2016 issued a “laundry list” opinion detailing “permissible” and “impermissible” uses of campaign funds by House members and candidates for House seats.

Under the opinion, House members and candidates can use campaign funds to pay for advertisements as part of a sponsorship with a nonprofit organization if it “results in publication of the member’s name and public title or the candidates’ name and public office sought.” The opinion also generally allows House members to use campaign funds for “contributions to charitable organizations,” noting that is “the type of expense incurred in relation to the office held.”

Tallon told The Nerve that he “specifically asked” Jane Shuler, the chief lawyer for the House Ethics Committee, if the billboard featuring him and the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Upstate was a “legitimate expenditure.”

“I told her what I wanted to do, and she said that was fine under a sponsorship,” he said.

Contacted May 18 by The Nerve, Shuler declined comment on her conversation with Tallon.

Whether the House Ethics Committee will weigh in on the matter remains to be seen.

Hannah Hill and Bryce Fiedler, policy analysts with the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization, contributed to this story. Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve. 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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