Long legislative tradition of putting ex-colleagues, relatives in high-paying public jobs

October 15, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

The possibility that two more ex-lawmakers could join the state Public Service Commission – with six-figure salaries – highlights a longstanding tradition of legislators giving well-paying jobs to their former colleagues, relatives and friends.

On Friday, the six-legislator, 10-member State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC), which nominates PSC candidates for election in the General Assembly, announced candidates who applied for four of seven PSC seats to be filled next year.

As The Nerve has previously reported, the PURC exerts considerable control over the regulation of utilities in South Carolina. The PSC over the years approved nine rate hikes for South Carolina Electric & Gas customers under a quietly passed 2007 state law that provided steady funding for the failed $9 billion V.C. Summer nuclear construction project in Fairfield County.

Of the 21 announced candidates for PSC seats next year, two are ex-lawmakers: Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican who was a House member from 1994-2016 and is running for the District 1 PSC seat; and Ted Vick, a Pawleys Island Democrat who served in the House from 2004-2014 and is seeking the District 7 seat. Both earlier made unsuccessful bids for the U.S. House.

“I don’t think that because you’re a former legislator that you’re automatically zeroed out,” Limehouse told The Nerve when contacted Tuesday. “I think the General Assembly is going to do its best to choose candidates who will do the job the best.”

Vick could not be reached immediately for comment Tuesday.

State law allows ex-lawmakers to be elected to the PSC if they have been out of office for at least four years after they left the Legislature or from the general election filing deadline in the year that they would have sought re-election. Limehouse announced in 2015 he would not seek another House term; the term of the PSC seat that he is seeking expires next June 30, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

The only ex-legislator currently on the PSC is Thomas Ervin, a former circuit court judge from Greenville who served in the House from 1980-84. Lawmakers last year easily elected Ervin over two other candidates for the District 4 PSC seat. They also selected Florence Belser, a former attorney for the PSC and the state Office of Regulatory Staff, for the District 2 seat earlier this year after holding a “do-over” election.

Commissioners’ pay might partly explain the interest in next year’s elections: Lawmakers for this fiscal year, which started July 1, hiked their annual salary by more than 22%, from $107,822 to $132,071. The commission chairman’s salary went from $109,726 to $133,982, according to the state salary database.

“I assure you I’m not doing this for the income,” Limehouse said.

PSC seats aren’t the only full-time government jobs that lawmakers have given to their ex-colleagues or relatives in recent years. Senators at the end of a special legislative session in June, for example, confirmed former state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, as a Laurens County magistrate – whose nomination was controlled by Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens – after he resigned his House seat in January in an unsuccessful bid to become the next state Conservation Bank director.

In May, the Legislature elected Courtney Clyburn Pope, daughter of state Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken, as a circuit court judge.

Circuit court judges make $191,954 annually – courtesy of a 33% base pay hike that lawmakers approved for this fiscal year, which The Nerve revealed last December. Pitts’ base salary this fiscal year is $47,706. Because state law ties magistrates’ pay to circuit judges’ salaries, his base salary next fiscal year will jump to at least $63,450 – not including possible additional pay from the county.

Last year, lawmakers elected Jennifer McCoy, wife of state Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, and Walt McLeod IV, son of ex-Democratic Rep. Walt McLeod of Newberry County, to circuit court seats. And legislators elected Milton Kimpson, brother of state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, and Bill Funderburk, husband of state Rep. Laurie Funderburk, D-Kershaw, to Administrative Law Court seats in 2017 and 2015, respectively.

Associate ALC judges receive an annual salary of $153,563; the chief judge makes $172,758, according to court clerk Jana Shealy.

There are no laws banning lawmakers’ relatives from running for judgeships filled by the Legislature. South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where their legislatures play primary roles in electing judges.

In next year’s PSC elections in the Legislature, tentatively set for Feb. 5, there are eight candidates, including Limehouse and incumbent John “Butch” Howard, for the District 1 seat; four candidates, including PSC chairman Comer “Randy” Randall, for the District 3 seat; four candidates, including incumbent Swain Whitfield, for the District 5 seat; and five candidates, including Vick, for the District 7 seat. G. O’Neal Hamilton, the District 7 incumbent, decided not to run for another four-year term, according to PURC attorney Heather Anderson.

By law, the PURC can nominate no more than three candidates for each seat. Public screening hearings are tentatively set for the week of Jan. 6, according to a schedule provided by Anderson.

The law requires candidates to have a “background of substantial duration and an expertise” in at least one of eight areas, including energy; telecommunications; consumer protection and advocacy; water and wastewater issues; finance, economics and statistics; accounting; engineering; or the law. Limehouse and Vick listed themselves as property business executives while they were lawmakers, according to their legislative biographies.

Limehouse on Tuesday contended he has a “longstanding and very public track record of trying to look out for the ratepayers of South Carolina,” noting that in the 1990s, he served on an ad-hoc committee that studied the issue of “deregulating the power industry” in the state.

But the PURC by law can qualify candidates even if they have no background in any of the eight statutory areas as long as three-fourths of the committee agree to qualify them and provide “written justification of their decision.”

And, as The Nerve reported last year, the PURC has no written criteria in making its final choices. Rep. David Mack, D-Charleston and a PURC member, acknowledged then that the final decision-making process of the panel is largely subjective. The PURC chairman and vice chairman are Oconee County Republicans Sen. Thomas Alexander and Rep. Bill Sandifer, respectively.

Limehouse currently serves on the board of the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB), which over the years funneled several billion dollars to large transportation projects in select counties. His possible election to the PSC could violate the dual-office-holding ban under the state constitution unless he resigns his STIB position.

Limehouse told The Nerve he would resign from the STIB if elected to the PSC.

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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