Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

October 31, 2013

Inside Insight

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ariail the man behind the curtain

Which is Worse: Raising Your Voice or Milking the System?

By Ashley Landess

There’s a running theme here on the Thursday Nerve page: public officials behaving badly. From politicians benefitting financially through their offices (which is against the law even in South Carolina) to public agency employees implying lawsuits if they don’t like their press coverage, we’ve showcased quite a few of the reasons SC’s government is the most corrupt in the nation – not the least of which is the lack of consequence for corruption.

The S.C. Retirement System Investment Commission (RSIC) debacle is another prime example of apparent corruption, secrecy at the expense of the public interest, and arrogance from public officials – not to mention more bonuses for high-paid public employees.

S.C. Treasurer Curtis Loftis has been battling the entrenched Commission for some time, demanding access to records and ultimately exposing high fees, low returns, and big staff bonuses. There has been plenty of back-and-forth between Loftis and Williams over the past two years, but Loftis’ allegation that Williams’ law firm made money on a deal between the Commission and a private company is yet another on the long list of concerns about South Carolina public officials benefiting from office. Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office declined to proceed with a case against Williams, who reportedly recused himself from the vote. But no one denies the firm in which Williams is a managing partner was paid to handle the deal between the Commission and one of the firm’s clients.

Regardless of whether Williams actually voted on the contract, his firm never should have been in the running. The laws are clear enough that service and private business should have no intersection, but too many instances of public officials making money from the system (including Williams’ appointer Senator Leatherman) are either ignored or dismissed. That suggests a major problem with either the laws or the enforcement of them – perhaps both. The upshot is rampant conflicts of interest and little action to stop it.

Also cause for concern is the attitude of the Retirement Investment Commission – shared by other state agency leaders and South Carolina most powerful politicians – that it’s bad for the state to shine the light on questionable activities by public officials. That’s absurd. It doesn’t matter whether the rest of the world thinks it’s a great day in South Carolina when the corruption in this state government is directly harming South Carolinians.

But the Commission took the arrogance to a truly absurd level when its executive director accused Loftis of “bullying” him after a phone call in which Loftis reportedly used “foul language.” The employee later quit and the Commission drafted an “anti-bullying” resolution.

At the risk of appearing insensitive, the idea that Loftis was bullying this man – or Williams, who later played the bully card – is ridiculous, and shows how rarely powerful public officials are challenged. Loftis can be hot-headed. He and I have had some disagreements that led to raised voices – on both sides! But trust me: there’s a big difference between being yelled at and truly being threatened by powerful politicians whose control reaches everywhere. Those who have been in that position know the difference.

Let’s hope Loftis was righteously angry on behalf of the public when he demanded answers from the Commission. And if the – um – men in charge of the Retirement Investment Commission got their feelings hurt, perhaps they also got the message that much more clearly. Sure, it isn’t nice or proper for anyone to yell and curse at others (there – I said it!), and public officials have to be especially cautious about doing so lest it appear threatening. But losing one’s temper is a far less serious offense than benefitting from public office.

Two major takeaways: It’s past time to clean up this corrupt state, both in terms of changing laws and of enforcing them. And it’s clear politicians have no business managing a pension fund. That money doesn’t belong to the state: it belongs to state retirees. The only way to ensure that cronies don’t milk the pension fund for personal gain, or make poor investments that end up forcing taxpayers to cover losses, is to take the state out of the business of managing the retirement funds of state employees.