Outside Groups Spent $130,000 on Lawmakers’ Travel in 2011

May 23, 2012

Investigative Reports

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9d8e25310ae7e48f9607f4f6ff713885A newsletter promoting the 20th annual National Speakers Conference last year in Charleston – hosted by S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, then the conference president – promised a good time to all who attended the four-day event.

“In addition to stimulating discussions on education, elections, health care and leadership, rest assured that we will also enjoy a big dose of ‘Southern Hospitality,’ which will include scrumptious food, lively music and unforgettable historic tours, as well as accommodations at the elegant Charleston Place,” according to the newsletter, which featured a picture of Harrell and the Charleston Place hotel.

The National Speakers Conference (NSC) is an organization made up of state House speakers from across the country. It is part of the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, a nonprofit organization with offices in Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts, which, according to its website, relies primarily on funding from its 65-corporate-member advisory council, including major companies such as General Electric, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart.

Harrell, R-Charleston, and at least four other House members – House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington; Brian White, R-Anderson and the Ways and Means Committee chairman; Phil Owens, R-Pickens and the Education and Public Works Committee chairman; and Leon Howard, D-Richland and the Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee chairman – attended the NSC event in the Holy City in September, state records show.

The total $10,203 gift was picked up by the National Speakers Conference, according to the lawmakers’ statements of economic interests filed recently with the S.C. Ethics Commission. The statements, which were due by April 15, list legislators’ public sources of income as well as gifts received by them.

The Nerve’s review of those reports found that last year, the NSC and other groups, both in and out of state, collectively spent at least $130,303 on trips for 57 S.C. lawmakers.

Last week, The Nerve reported that the South Carolina Dialogue Foundation, a Greenville-based nonprofit organization that promotes the Turkish culture, and various other unidentified Turkish sponsors spent an estimated $56,000, which is included in the $130,303 total, to send eight senators on a 10-day trip to Turkey in October.

Other groups also spent thousands of dollars for S.C. lawmakers to attend their events, records show.

For example, the Washington, D.C.-based American Legislative Exchange Council, which bills itself on its website as a think tank for “state-based public policy issues and potential solutions,” spent at least $6,160 to send five House members and a senator to the organization’s three-day annual conference in New Orleans in August.

The Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, an education-reform organization, covered a collective $5,274 in costs for four representatives to attend a two-day national summit in October in San Francisco, according to Ethics Commission records.

There also were plenty of in-state trips covered by various special-interest groups. The South Carolina Association of Counties, for example, spent $5,640 for five senators and three House members to attend the organization’s annual meeting July 29 to Aug. 3 in Hilton Head, according to the lawmakers’ statements of economic interests.

Many of the lawmakers’ ethics forms don’t specify the dates or locations of their trips. Cathy Hazelwood, the Ethics Commission attorney, told The Nerve in a written response this week that state law doesn’t require that information unless the lawmaker is invited as a speaker; and the event sponsor reimbursed the legislator for mileage, room or board.

Other than reimbursing for guest speaker expenses, registered lobbyists’ principals generally aren’t allowed to offer trips as gifts under state law, though they can spend up to $60 a day per lawmaker on receptions and meals, Hazelwood said. The State Legislative Leaders Foundation, American Legislative Exchange Council and Foundation for Excellence in Education are not listed as lobbyists’ principals, Ethics Commission records show.

The South Carolina Association of Counties is a registered lobbyist’s principal, though Robert Croom, the association’s deputy general counsel, told The Nerve this week that all of the lawmakers who attended the Hilton Head event meeting last year were invited as guest speakers or panelists.

In an interview Monday, Bingham told The Nerve that his 2011 trips sponsored by the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the National Speakers Conference, which covered costs totaling $2,181, were well worth the money.

“It was an incredible conference,” Bingham, owner of an engineering consulting firm and chairman of the Ways and Means public education subcommittee, said about the education conference in San Francisco.“It dealt with (school) choice and improving education throughout the state.”

The purpose of the foundation, whose board chairman is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is to “ignite a movement of reform, state by state, to transform education for the 21st century,” according to its website. The organization listed total revenues of more than $6 million in 2010, according to its federal tax return for that year.

As for the National Speakers Conference, Bingham said he believed it was important that other state representatives attended the event besides Harrell, noting, “Any time a state hosts a national event like the National Speakers Conference, it helps to have other state leaders there to show them (guests) hospitality and to help them in any way we can.”

Howard told The Nerve this week that Harrell invited him and other committee chairmen to the NSC event. Besides that conference, Howard also attended separate conferences last year on Kiawah Island sponsored by the South Carolina Orthopaedic Association and the South Carolina Alliance of Health Plans, records show.

The total cost of the three trips covered by their sponsors was $2,713, according to Howard’s statement of economic interests.

Howard, president of a body shop and wrecker service, said attending medical conferences helps him better deal with his constituents when they seek help on medical issues. He denied that the conference sponsors influence his vote on bills pertaining to issues affecting the sponsors’ industries.

“I’m not leaning to either group,” he said about the doctor and health insurer conferences he attended last year, pointing out that the two groups often take conflicting positions on issues. “I’m just being objective and listening to both sides.”

John Crangle, director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause of South Carolina, said he believes lawmakers should be banned from taking legislative trips sponsored by outside groups.

“They’re trying to buy influence; there’s no question about that,” he said. “When you take all these freebies, it’s very corrosive.”

ALEC’S Influence in S.C.

State Rep. Boyd Brown, D-Fairfield, on May 1 introduced a bill (H. 5188) that would have deleted part of a state ethics law allowing lawmakers to be invited to any American Legislative Exchange Council conferences, or other national or regional conferences of organizations “for which the General Assembly pays annual dues as a membership requirement.”

The bill has not moved out of the House Judiciary Committee. Brown did not respond to several phone messages from The Nerve.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) describes itself on its website as a nonprofit organization that “provides a constructive forum for state legislators and private sector leaders to discuss and exchange practical state-level public policy issues.”

Lawmakers pay annual membership dues to belong to the organization, though dues made up just slightly more than 1 percent of the organization’s $7.1 million in total revenues in 2010, according to ALEC’s federal tax return for that year.

The national Common Cause organization in April filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service contending that ALEC has violated its nonprofit status by engaging in lobbying. The organization has denied the allegations.

“They have no influence,” Rep. Liston Barfield, R-Horry and the national ALEC board secretary for this year. “They don’t tell anybody how to vote.”

Although ALEC on its website says the “potential solutions discussed at ALEC focus on free markets, limited government and constitutional division of powers between the federal and state governments,” the organization has both Republican and Democratic Party members, Barfield said, adding that at least one Democratic lawmaker in recent years has served as the national chairman.

ALEC helps lawmakers develop model legislation on a variety of issues, Barfield said, noting that input from business leaders is important.

“When we see an ALEC bill, we know the business community supports the bill,” he said.

Lawmakers pay $50 a year in membership dues to belong to ALEC, Barfield said, though he said that doesn’t include registration costs of conferences. Typically, ALEC picks up a portion of conference costs, with lawmakers paying the balance from their election campaign accounts or “out of their own pockets,” he said.

Barfield said, for example, he attended the New Orleans conference last year and paid for part of it with campaign funds. ALEC covered $1,125 of the costs, according his statement of economic interests.

Barfield said ALEC receives no state tax dollars. The Nerve this week was unable to reach national ALEC officials for comment.

‘Not Driven’ by Policy Positions

Contacted Monday, Stephen Lakis, president of the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, told The Nerve that no South Carolina tax dollars were used to host the National Speakers Conference last year in Charleston. He said at least 50 companies helped sponsor the event, which cost an estimated “several hundred thousand dollars,” though he couldn’t provide a more precise figure.

On its website, the foundation says its mission is to “educate and inspire our nation’s current and future state legislative leaders to excellence, without regard for party, politics or ideology.” The foundation listed $2.7 million in total revenues in 2010, according to its federal tax return for that year.

The National Speakers Conference, according to the foundation site, is “focused on bringing Speakers together to discuss issues of common interest by promoting the open exchange of ideas and information through its various programs and publications.”

“We’re not driven by developing public policy positions,” Lakis told The Nerve. “We assiduously avoid taking positions.”

Lakis said Harrell and his staff “played a big role” in organizing the Charleston conference, which was the first such annual conference in the Holy City in 10 years. He noted that keynote presenters included former U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen, and Republican U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint.

Ethics Commission records show that a political action committee with ties to Harrell, known as the Palmetto Leadership Council, contributed $50,000 last year to the NSC. Lakis said he didn’t know the source of the money donated to the PAC for the conference.

Besides having his $3,730 in conference costs covered by the NSC, Harrell also received travel, lodging and food, valued at a total of $3,833, for three other foundation or conference-related events last year, records show.

As has been his practice, Harrell did not respond to phone and written messages this week from The Nerve seeking comment.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org