Rep. Cobb-Hunter Sponsors $200,000 Earmark for Her Nonprofit

June 25, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Gilda Cobb-HunterUPDATE:
6/26/13 – The S.C. House this afternoon voted 108-9 to sustain Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto of the state budget proviso (Proviso 35.15) that would have provided $200,000 to Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter’s nonprofit organization, CASA Family Systems. Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg and CASA’S executive director, abstained from the vote. Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, announced just before the vote that Cobb-Hunter, who had sponsored language in the proviso directing the $200,000 to her organization, had requested that the veto be sustained “due to the confusion with that part of the proviso.”

A $200,000 earmark in next fiscal year’s proposed state budget is a minuscule fraction of the state spending plan for 2013-14, but it’s apparently a big deal to longtime S.C. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter.

Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg and executive director of an Orangeburg nonprofit organization known as CASA Family Systems, sponsored the earmark for her organization late in the budget process, according to an internal House document obtained last week by The Nerve.

Cobb-Hunter, a House member since 1992, sits on the powerful budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

The $200,000 is tucked away in an obscure budget proviso (35.15) under the state Department of Mental Health’s section of the $24 billion-plus state budget that the General Assembly gave final approval to last week. Lawmakers are expected to return to Columbia this week to deal with any budget vetoes by Gov. Nikki Haley.

In an email response Friday from Honolulu, Cobb-Hunter, who noted she was attending a meeting there, confirmed to The Nerve that she was the sponsor of the $200,000 earmark, though she didn’t see anything wrong with it.

“I don’t see it as a conflict of interest and believe full disclosure of the funding puts it out there for all to see,” she wrote.

Still, Cobb-Hunter acknowledged, when questioned by The Nerve about her vote on the matter, that she should have recused herself from a June 5 House-floor vote on a budget amendment, which, among other things, added the earmark.

“My vote on June 5th was in error and I should have abstained,” she said.

Cobb-Hunter earned $82,967 as CASA’s executive director for the fiscal year that ended last June 30, according to the organization’s most recent federal tax filings. Of the $771,570 in total revenues for that year, $695,121, or 90 percent, was from government grants, records show.

Those records show that the organization over the past two fiscal years reported receiving a yearly average of nearly $786,000 in total revenues; the proposed $200,000 earmark would represent more than a quarter of that amount.

In a written response last week to questions from The Nerve, Mark Binkley, chief lawyer for the Department of Mental Health (DMH), said he was “not sure” which lawmaker proposed the CASA earmark, noting, “We were informed of the proviso by House staff.”

The internal House document obtained last week by The Nerve was dated June 18 and labeled “Earmarked Projects” for the general appropriations bill (H. 3710) and another bill (H. 3711) that allocate funds from the state Capital Reserve Fund.

A disclaimer at the bottom of the document reads: “The above constituted summary is prepared by the staff of the South Carolina House of Representatives and is not the expression of the legislation’s sponsor(s) or the House of Representatives. It is strictly for the internal use and benefit of members of the House of Representatives and is not to be construed by a court of law as an expression of legislative intent.”

No one has accused Cobb-Hunter of doing anything wrong, though state ethics law (Section 8-13-700 of the S.C. Code of Laws) bans state lawmakers or other public officials from knowingly using their “official office, membership, or employment to obtain an economic interest for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated.”

“Economic interest” is defined under state law as a “transaction or arrangement involving property or services in which a public official, public member, or public employee may gain an economic benefit of fifty dollars or more.”

In South Carolina, lawmakers police themselves for ethical violations through their respective House and Senate Ethics committees.

CASA’s mission, according to its federal tax returns, is to “assist victims of sexual and domestic violence in their journey to survivorship, self-advocacy, self-efficacy and independence.”  .

The proposed $200,000 was slipped into a temporary, one-year budget proviso (Proviso 35.15) in the second House version of the state budget that was passed on June 5. The proviso directs the money through the state Department of Mental Health for CASA’s “general operating expenses associated with the provision of mental health and related services to child and adult victims of sexual violence.”

Cobb-Hunter told The Nerve that the funding will be split between her organization and the Orangeburg Area Mental Health Center, which is part of the Department of Mental Health. She said besides counseling services, the money also would be used to support “Project BEST,” a statewide training collaboration for those who provide mental health services for abused children.

However, the budget language that Cobb-Hunter sponsored doesn’t include any of those specifics.

Binkley told The Nerve that the Orangeburg Area Mental Health Center “has had contracts with CASA Family Systems in the past, and does periodically refer patients in need of their specific services to CASA,” adding that CASA also has made referrals to the center.

In her written response to The Nerve, Cobb-Hunter said the proposed $200,000 earmark for CASA was in the original House version of the budget, and that she, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, and Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter and chairman of the Ways and Means Healthcare Subcommittee, “agreed that in the spirit of transparency and openness the funding should be identified in the proviso.” Cobb-Hunter serves on Ways and Means, though she is not a member of Smith’s subcommittee.

The Nerve’s review found, however, that the proposal was not included in any of the approved budget versions passed before June 5 by the Ways and Means Committee, the full House, Senate Finance Committee and full Senate. House Journal records show that Cobb-Hunter took part in the unanimous 111-0 House vote on June 5 approving a comprehensive budget amendment that included the CASA earmark.

The earmark also was included in a budget conference committee’s version that passed both chambers on Wednesday.

Cobb-Hunter said she abstained from voting, “as the rules require,” on the DMH section of the budget in the original House version passed in March. But state law allows lawmakers to vote on the budget as a whole, even if they had recused themselves earlier on voting on separate budget sections, which means that they, in effect, are approving appropriations for those agencies where conflicts of interest exist or potentially exist.

Cobb-Hunter voted for the initial House version budget as a whole, as well as the amended House version on June 5, though she was among nine House members who were recorded as noting voting on the final budget version on Wednesday, which barely passed that chamber by a 54-52 vote.

Jamie Murguia, director of research at the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization, contributed to this story. Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.