Preschool program pays consultant hefty fees

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Bob McAlister cleared more than 350k from SC First Steps

By ROBERT MEYEROWITZ

South Carolina First Steps to School Readiness, an early-childhood development program funded by the state, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to a prominent political consultant over the last several years, according to documents obtained from the state Department of Education.

Between October of 2013 and July of 2016, First Steps paid $356,495 dollars to McAlister Communications, a firm owned and operated by Bob McAlister, whose “wide-ranging connections extend beyond South Carolina to the national level where he was a media consultant for George W. Bush’s 2000 South Carolina presidential campaign, Senators Strom Thurmond and Lindsey Graham, Governors Carroll Campbell and David Beasley, and many legislators,” according to its website.

McAlister has been a well-paid consultant for state Senate President pro tempore Hugh Leatherman, and has counted Governor Henry McMaster among his clients. He has also at times partnered on operations with Richard Quinn, the political consultant who has been drawn into the corruption investigation being pursued by solicitor David Pascoe.

McAlister and Quinn worked together on McMaster’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Several weeks ago, former governor Nikki Haley, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted: “In 2010 I experienced the wrath of [Quinn] and McAlister. SC consultants will do Everything to maintain control and keep the money flowing.”

In the documentation provided by the Department of Education, the First Steps payments to McAlister are designated for such things as consulting, advertising, and “Serving on or Chairing Task Force of Ed” ($128,000).

First Steps has 1,946 students enrolled statewide this year, and a budget of approximately $33 million.

On its transparency site, the office of the state comptroller general shows payments to McAlister by the Department of Education from 2013 to the present of $225,190, in categories different than the ones on the records provided by the Department of Education. That information was provided by First Steps.

The Department of Education had nothing to do with arranging or making any of the payments, said Ryan Brown, its chief communications officer. “We’re just the fiscal agent.” The payments “would have to have been approved by [First Steps’] board.”

First Steps is governed by a board of trustees, with members appointed by the governor, the speaker of the state House, and the president pro tempore of the Senate. It’s chaired by Ken Wingate, an attorney appointed by Haley.

McAlister Communications is “on a fixed-price contract through the state” with First Steps, said First Steps deputy director Dan Wuori. Asked how the firm came to be selected for the work, Wuori said, “We were seeking some support and they applied.”

McAlister, asked if he could detail any of the work he did for First Steps, said, “I don’t talk about my clients. They’ll have to speak for themselves.”

Last year, when Leatherman used McAlister Communications for campaign work, he paid the firm $602,003 for his reelection bid. The money was directed for media buys, polling, and consulting, according to public campaign records, for a seat Leatherman had held for 36 years already, when he ran unopposed in the general election and beat his two primary challengers with more than 54 percent of the vote. In that same election, Leatherman also paid Richard Quinn & Associates another $154,792 for advertising, mailing, and consulting.

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