Relatives of Lawmakers Could Have Greater Presence on MUSC Board

March 28, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Medical University of South Carolina(Editor’s Note: The General Assembly unanimously voted Wednesday, May 15, to appoint Dr. G. Murrell Smith, father of Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, to the board of trustees of the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). Smith will join William Bingham Sr., the father of Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, and Michael Stavrinakis, brother of Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, on the MUSC board. Lawmakers also appointed former Rep. Jim Battle, D-Marion, to the MUSC board.)

(Editor’s Note: The General Assembly voted Wednesday, May 1, to appoint Michael Stavrinakis, brother of Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, to the board of trustees of the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). He will join William Bingham Sr., the father of Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington on the MUSC board. Lawmakers also appointed former Rep. Jim Battle, D-Marion, to the MUSC board.)

The makeup of the Medical University of South Carolina’s governing board might soon include the relatives of three sitting state lawmakers, along with a legislator who left office last year.

A joint legislative screening panel on Wednesday recommended the following candidates to the General Assembly, which will make final selections in an upcoming joint session:

  • William Bingham Sr. of Cayce, a board incumbent since 2002 and father of Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, who is the House Ethics Committee chairman and a member of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee;
  • G. Murrell Smith Sr. of Sumter, a board newcomer and father of Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, who is a member of the Ethics and Ways and Means committees;
  • Michael Stavrinakis of Charleston, a board newcomer and brother of Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, who is a member of the Ethics and Ways and Means committees; and
  • Former state Rep. Jim Battle, D-Marion, a board newcomer who didn’t run last year for re-election in the Legislature after serving 16 years.

If elected by the General Assembly, the four candidates would make up a quarter of the Charleston school’s 16-member board of trustees. All but Bingham have challengers, who received favorable reports from the eight-member screening committee, chaired by Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee.

Rep. Stavrinakis sat near his brother in the hearing room Wednesday.

John Crangle, executive director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause of South Carolina, criticized the apparent nepotism when contacted Wednesday by The Nerve.

“There seems to be a tone deafness to this kind of conduct in this state,” he said, describing it as part of a political culture that most lawmakers accept without question.

Cathy Hazelwood, the State Ethics Commission’s chief attorney, told The Nerve in an email Wednesday that state law “provides that a public official may not appoint a family member (such as a father or brother) to a position they supervise or manage.”

Hazelwood said she didn’t think that the Legislature supervised or managed university board members, adding that under state law, the House and Senate Ethics committees have final jurisdiction over their respective members.

Rep. Bingham, the House Ethics Committee chairman, told The Nerve late Wednesday that the issue needed more research. MUSC trustees do not receive compensation for their service, he said.

The General Assembly provides funding annually to MUSC, one of the South Carolina’s three public research institutions. In its version of the state budget for next fiscal year, which starts July 1, the House approved a total budget of more than $659 million for MUSC.

Rep. Smith chairs a House Ways and Means subcommittee that oversees the state’s Medicaid budget. House GOP leaders last month unveiled their alternative to complying with the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare”; their plan, among other things, includes funneling $8 million to MUSC to expand its “tele-medicine” program.

Under state law, the 16-member MUSC board is made up of  the governor or her designee, one member appointed by the governor, and 14 members elected by the General Assembly. The 14 seats filled by the Legislature are divided evenly among the state’s seven congressional districts; each district has a board member with a medical background and a lay member.

The terms of the seats sought by the candidates screened Wednesday would start July 1. Most of the terms expire in 2016; the remainder would expire next year.

State law requires the General Assembly pick college or university trustees “based on merit regardless of race, color, creed, or gender and shall strive to assure that the membership of the board is representative of all citizens of the state of South Carolina.”

The joint legislative committee met in a closed session after  Wednesday’s meeting to discuss the eligibility of Rep. Smith’s father, who is a gynecologist. During Dr. Smith’s testimony, Peeler questioned whether he lived in the 5th Congressional District; Smith is being challenged for the medical seat by incumbent Dr. Coty Fishburne of Rock Hill.

Peeler did not return a call to The Nerve after Wednesday’s meeting, nor did two staff members, to confirm Smith’s outcome; his residency status was unknown as of publication of this story. All other incumbents or first-time candidates who did not withdraw their nominations received favorable nominations from the screening committee and will go before the General Assembly.

That includes Battle, who is seeking the 7th Congressional District lay seat along with Marva Smalls, a businesswoman from Florence.

Rep. Stavrinakis’ brother faces a challenge for the 1st Congressional District lay seat from Susan Pearlstine of Charleston.

“I’ve been pretty heavily vetted by several legislators,” said Michael Stavrinakis, who noted he owns three restaurants.

In her testimony, Pearlstine told lawmakers not to focus on the “who-you-know-process,” but instead on her business experience, which she said included managing a longstanding family business until late last year.

“That’s what I hope will win the day,” Pearlstine said.

Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or curt@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.