MY LAST NERVE: House Member All But Admits Conflict in Floor Debate

March 13, 2015

Inside Insight

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By JAMIE MURGUIA

South Carolina Statehouse Dome

“It’s good business for me.”

A freshmen lawmaker did the unthinkable on the House floor Wednesday. Rep. Jonathon Hill (R-Anderson) asked a colleague whether he had a conflict of interest on an amendment on which he, the colleague, intended to vote. It was apparently an honest question, and a justifiable one: The colleague, Rep. Mike Forrester (R-Spartanburg) had, in so many words, just admitted to the conflict.

Yet it was the question, not the conflict, that other House members didn’t like.

Here’s what happened. Rep. Hill proposed an amendment that would require a degree of transparency on “key performance and return on investment indicators” (such as jobs retained and created) reported by the Small Business Development Center Program, and would cap appropriations to the Small Business Development Center Program (SBDC) at $800,000 for the fiscal year. Several members spoke against the amendment, including Forrester.

Forrester, though – as The Nerve pointed out earlier this week – is director of economic development at Spartanburg Community College, where the SBDC is housed.

The following conversation ensued as Rep. Forrester spoke against Hill’s amendment:

Hill: Mr. Forrester, did I understand you correctly that you work for the Spartanburg Community College?

Forrester: That is correct.

Hill: OK. Would you agree that hosting the SBDC at the college is good business for the college?

Forrester: It’s good business for me. I’m a certified economic developer and any time I can help a young entrepreneur with assistance in getting their business off the ground, it certainly is a positive.

Hill: So Mr. Forrester, do you not see that voting on this tabling motion that we’re about to vote on would be a conflict of interest for you personally?

Forrester: Absolutely not…

Forrester, asked by The Nerve this week whether he thought he was conflicted on a proposal he sponsored, did not respond. He proposed an amendment (as The Nerve went on to report) to give $3 million to the Department of Employment and Workforce (DEW) for “direct training.” The DEW is listed on the Spartanburg Community College’s website as one of their “collaborative partners.” Were it not for Hill’s questions, the public would not know Forrester’s conflict and subsequent flouting of the state’s recusal law by voting to table Hill’s amendment.

(I should note that the amendment was tabled on a voice vote, but the journal does not reflect a statement by Forrester indicating he abstained from the vote.)

Hill later took the well to apologize to the body, saying he had spoken to several colleagues and realized his behavior was not respectful toward Mr. Forrester. While I respect Rep. Hill for apologizing, his questions to Forrester were in no sense disrespectful. It was a question, not an accusation, and in any case Forrester is a elected official who has willingly inserted himself into public life – he ought to be able to handle a tough question now and then.

What I suspect other House members didn’t appreciate, however, was the substance that Hill’s questions and Forrester’s answers exposed. South Carolina lawmakers seem to think they are entitled to a “heads up” before they’re asked about an obvious conflict of interest. They are not.

There is a “club” mentality in the legislature, and that is precisely why so many citizens, editorialists, and nonprofit organizations are calling on lawmakers to abolish a system in which they’re permitted to police each other’s ethical and even criminal violations. If a member can’t even raise the possibility of impropriety without being goaded into an apology (as I suspect, but do not know, Hill was), how can anyone seriously believe that lawmakers are holding themselves accountable behind the closed doors of the House and Senate ethics committees?

What’s “good business” for state lawmakers, after all, isn’t good business for the rest of us.