Public agencies spend thousands on lobbyists during COVID-19 outbreak

October 27, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

The spread of the coronavirus in South Carolina didn’t stop public agencies’ spending on lobbying lawmakers and other state government officials.

From Jan. 1 through May 31, 44 state and local entities, including state-created agencies such as Santee Cooper and local fire and water/sewer districts, collectively spent at least $812,661 on lobbyists, The Nerve found in a review of State Ethics Commission records.

The reported lobbyist payments represent only a small part of the total spent by some public agencies to influence state officials. Clemson University, for example, reported to the State Ethics Commission that it paid three lobbyists who, according to the university’s website, are employed by the university a total of $25,065 to for the first five months of this year.

Yet one of those lobbyists, Angela Leidinger, who is the university’s vice president for external affairs, makes $248,018 annually, while another lobbyist, Mark Cothran, who is the associate vice president of governmental affairs, receives $121,112 yearly, according to the state salary database. The database contained no salary information for the other lobbyist, Michael Wright, who is listed on the university’s website as the director of governmental affairs.

The Upstate university has a six-person “Office of Governmental Affairs,” housed in a high-rise building across the street from the State House in downtown Columbia, according to its website.

Under state law, reported lobbyist payments are supposed to reflect time spent “promoting or opposing” legislative, gubernatorial or agency matters “through direct communication with public officials or public employees.” Lobbyists can be paid hourly, per project or per legislative session, according to the State Ethics Commission.

The University of South Carolina reported to the commission that it paid seven lobbyists a total of $62,500 for the first five months of this year. Two of those lobbyists work for the university: Derrick Meggie is the director of state government relations; Craig Parks is the director of government relations, according to the university’s website.

Meggie and Parks each make $180,000 annually, according to the state salary database. Four other lobbyists, including Billy Boan, a former longtime S.C. House member and budget director under ex-Gov. Jim Hodges, work in McGuireWoods Consulting’s Columbia office, which is headed by Hodges, according to the firm’s website.

The Medical University of South Carolina reported to the Ethics Commission that it paid three lobbyists a total of $48,359 from January through May. One of those lobbyists, Mark Sweatman, is MUSC’s chief of governmental affairs and secretary to the board of trustees; another lobbyist, Katherine Haltiwanger, is listed on the university’s website as a legislative liaison. The other lobbyist, Quenton Tompkins, is MUSC’s government affairs manager, according to his online LinkedIn account.

It’s not just universities that have in-house lobbyists. Santee Cooper, for example, which lawmakers are debating whether to the sell, among other options, in the wake of the failed $9 billion V.C. Summer nuclear project, reported $56,917 in total payments from January through May to lobbyists Geoffrey Penland and Yvette Rowland.

During this year’s regular legislative session, Penland was listed in Santee Cooper records as the manager of its state and federal government relations, while Rowland was identified as the senior state and federal government relations liaison. As of February, Penland’s and Rowland’s base annual salaries were $175,047 and $160,000, respectively, according to utility records provided earlier to The Nerve.

Another $30,080 was collectively paid in the first five months of this year to lobbyists representing two other state-created entities: the S.C. Ports Authority and South Carolina Research Authority, Ethics Commission records show.

A 2003 executive order issued by then-Gov. Mark Sanford banned the governor’s Cabinet agencies from hiring outside contractors to lobby the S.C. Legislature. But despite that policy, The Nerve last year revealed that current Gov. Henry McMaster had hired a large law and consulting firm under an “emergency procurement” contract to lobby the federal government at a monthly taxpayer cost of $15,000.

The city of North Myrtle Beach led all public entities in The Nerve’s latest review with $80,000 in total lobbyist payments over the first five months of this year. The Nerve last year reported that the city was pushing for a law allowing a local sales tax for infrastructure projects.

The city of Myrtle Beach reported a total of $25,000 in lobbyist payments for the five-month period this year, while the cities of Columbia, Greenville and Charleston listed a collective $20,000, $16,531 and $9,283 in payments, respectively, during the period, Ethics Commission records show.

The Charleston County School District, S.C. Public Charter School District and the Beaufort County School Board reported $44,039, $30,104 and $8,720, respectively, in total lobbyist payments over the period, according to records.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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