Pols in Ads: The People’s Work or Self-Promotion?

April 19, 2010

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The NerveDon’t hate me because I’m powerful.

Perhaps that is the message a handful of high-ranking South Carolina politicians would send about their appearances in ads on television and in other media promoting government programs and services.

After all, the pols are just doing the people’s work, right? You know, getting the word out to taxpayers about how their hard-earned dollars are being spent.

Or, on second thought, maybe the true takeaway from the practice speaks to a Machiavellian streak not uncommon in politicians of every stripe – self-promotion.

While most elected officials do not make a habit of popping up in ads about government programs and services, the behavior is not unheard of, either. And it raises important public policy questions, especially with regard to state constitutional officers.

As it happens, politicians occupying four of nine such posts in South Carolina have served up examples of the practice and the questions surrounding it.

Cathy Hazelwood, attorney for the State Ethics Commission, says state law prohibits elected officials from seeking votes or otherwise attempting to influence an election when appearing in their official capacity in ads. “Absent that,” she says, “there is no prohibition in the Ethics (Reform) Act for slapping your face on something.”

Thus the question becomes: Do politicians need to be seen in commercials and the like when doing so might violate the spirit of the law if not the letter of it?

“You’d have to ask them,” Hazelwood says.

State law also requires all constitutional officers except the governor to receive unanimous written approval from the S.C. Budget and Control Board before using funding appropriated by the General Assembly to pay for print, radio or TV advertising.

The same is true for spending such money to print or distribute “official documents extraneous promotional material or to purchase plaques, awards, citations, or other recognitions.”

When it comes to non-public dollars for advertising and other promotions, the law says “the constitutional officer expending the funds must submit the source of the funds showing all contributors to the Budget and Control Board before the funds are expended.”

Chellis Mints TV Ads

State Treasurer Converse Chellis, a Republican, appears in at least four 30-second TV commercials advertising the South Carolina Future Scholar 529 College Savings Plan.

The General Assembly tapped Chellis to fill the treasurer’s post in 2007 after former Treasurer Thomas Ravenel pleaded guilty to a federal cocaine charge and went to prison.

Chellis, a former legislator, occupies one of five crucial seats on the S.C. Budget and Control Board, which wields vast power over the money and machinery of state government.

The Future Scholar 529 College Savings Plan is a state-run program that offers South Carolina residents income tax breaks on money they put away in it to help someone pay for school. There is also a component to the program for out-of-state residents.

S.C. Superintendent of Education Jim Rex, a Democrat, does a cameo in one of the 529 ads alongside Chellis.

Neither the production costs of the Future Scholar ads nor the air time to broadcast them were paid for with tax dollars, according to Scott Malyerck, deputy state treasurer. Rather, certain fees paid by participants in the college savings program covered those expenses, he says.

Malyerck says a contract the state signed with Bank of America subsidiary Columbia Management to administer the program requires Future Scholar to spend at least $690,000 per year on advertising. And he says enrollment in the program spiked significantly after the commercials aired.

The number of participants jumped from about 60,000 to roughly 80,000, according to Jenny McGill, program director of the 529 plan. In addition, a majority of enrollees are South Carolinians; whereas previously most were out-of-state residents, McGill says.

But be that as it may, the 529 TV spots have dogged Chellis, as several other media outlets across South Carolina also have reported on the issue, most recently the Columbia-area alternative newsweekly Free Times.

Malyerck says it’s fair to question whether the treasurer should be in the ads. But to suggest that anything isn’t above board with them, he says, is “totally wrong and misleading.”

Most if not all states have 529 programs and savingforcollege.com, a widely cited Web site, maintains performance rankings of them.

In its latest rankings as of Feb. 24, savingforcollege.com lists the five-year performance of South Carolina’s in-state plan at No. 6 in the nation, down from No. 2 in August.

Citing those rankings, and the enrollment boost in the program after the commercials aired, Malyerck describes the ads as a “huge success.”

As for the notification law pertaining to the Budget and Control Board, Chellis followed it, according to Mike Sponhour, spokesman for the board.

What about Rex?

Because Rex’s office did not spend any money on the ads, he had no obligation to report the matter, Sponhour says.

Bauer and Weathers in the Spotlight

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and S.C. Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers, both Republicans, are appearing in promotional material with regularity.

Bauer, who oversees the Office on Aging, is pictured in an ad that runs in the Cayce-West Columbia News and its sister publications serving Lexington County. Listing a phone number and e-mail and Web site addresses, the ad says, “It is an honor to serve the senior citizens of this state. If the Lt. Governor’s Office on Aging can assist you in any way, please contact us.”

The papers are published by Rod Shealy Sr., a political consultant whom Bauer has hired in the past.

Responding to questions from The Nerve, Shealy says the ads are a public service. “No money changes hands,” he says. “That is a donated ad.”

And Shealy says he is no longer doing paid political work for Bauer.

The lieutenant governor’s latest disclosure filing with the Ethics Commission shows that Shealy contributed $3,500 to Bauer.

Sponhour says he is not sure if the law applies to the newspaper ads.

Weathers’ mug runs with a column he writes for Market Bulletin, a mostly classified ads venue the state Department of Agriculture publishes on the first and third Thursdays of each month.

Market Bulletin is like a printed version of Craigslist specifically for farm-related items.

Nearly 100 years old, Market Bulletin always has featured a column by the agriculture commissioner, department spokeswoman Becky Walton says. “At one point I think there was no picture,” she says.

Noting that Market Bulletin has been published for decades, Sponhour says it isn’t clear that Weathers’ picture alongside his column constitutes an actual advertisement.

Owing to tight budget times, in 2001 the Legislature authorized the Department of Agriculture to charge an annual subscription fee for Market Bulletin. At $10, the agency began doing so in July of that year. “It pays for itself,” Walton says of the publication. Free archived copies are available on the agency’s Web site, she adds.

One full-time department employee and one part-timer produce Market Bulletin, and Stephen Hudson, who helps handle public affairs for Agriculture, coordinates it, Walton says.

She elaborates in a follow-up e-mail, which says in part, “Since 2001, no appropriated funds have been used to publish the periodical, and there is no paid advertising. Since the funds used to publish the Market Bulletin are not appropriated funds and since no advertising space is being purchased, outside approval is not necessary.”

True, a picture of many if not most columnists appears alongside their write-ups.

So, is all of this simply innocuous? Much ado about nothing?

The Nerve off on a tangent?

Citizen referee, you make the call.

Reach Ward at (803) 779-5022, ext. 117, or eric@scpolicycouncil.com.