S.C. Lawmakers’ Businesses Paid Thousands by Local Governments

April 27, 2015

Investigative Reports

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Pile of MoneyLast fall, S.C. House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister co-sponsored a proposed House rule that would have allowed felony charges against citizens who gave “materially misleading” or “materially incomplete” testimony before House panels.

The proposal was quickly dropped after a December Nerve story questioned the legality of the rule. Ironically, Bannister’s law firm, among other things, defends low-income citizens charged with crimes.

Bannister, a Greenville Republican and an attorney, is a partner in the Bannister, Wyatt and Stalvey firm, which last year had a $36,000 contract for public defender work in the 13th Circuit Public Defender’s Office, which covers Greenville and Pickens counties, according to Bannister’s annual income-disclosure report filed March 30 with the State Ethics Commission.

And that contract wasn’t the only source of income in 2014 from local public agencies that Bannister listed in his income-disclosure report, known as a statement of economic interests. He also reported  his law firm received $17,380 from the “GCPW,” which, according to Greenville County Administrator Joseph Kernell, likely was the Greer Commission of Public Works; and another $3,150 from Greenville County, which used the law firm for “some County real estate transactions,” Kernell said in his written response Friday to The Nerve.

Bannister, who has been a House member since 2005, did not return a phone message Friday from The Nerve seeking comment. John Mauldin, the 13th Circuit’s chief public defender, told The Nerve when contacted Friday that Bannister is not involved with any public defender cases in his office, adding a partner in the Bannister law firm is assigned those cases.

State ethics law (Section 8-13-700 of the S.C. Code of Laws) bans a public official from using his office to “obtain an economic interest” for a “business with which he is associated.” The House and Senate police themselves for ethics violations through their respective ethics committees; no legislator in recent years has been publicly accused by either of those committees of violating Section 8-13-700.

The South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – has called for an end to lawmakers’ self-policing powers as part of its eight-point reform agenda.

Bannister isn’t the only state lawmaker who reported income last year from local public agencies. For example, Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee and chairman of the Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, reported a total of more than $78,000 in income from 11 local government agencies or offices in the Upstate.

Alexander’s annual income-disclosure report doesn’t give specifics on the types of items purchased by local agencies, but Oconee County Administrator Scott Moulder told The Nerve last week the supplies for the administrator’s office included “paper, pens, folders, binders, some office equipment – calculators,” and a “number of shelving units.”

Alexander, whose businesses include Alexander’s Office Supply, Oconee Office Supply and Cleveland Gospel Supply, reported receiving a total of nearly $49,000 last year for office supplies provided to “various” county departments, according to his statement of economic interests.

“We’ve actually purchased quite a few office supplies from Senator Alexander,” Moulder said. “He is a local vendor.”

Asked if Alexander’s business has always been the low bidder, Moulder replied, “I’m not sure that’s probably the case 100 percent of the time, but I don’t think you can for anything,” adding that Alexander has lowered his total bill in several cases when contacted by his office staff.

Besides Oconee County, Alexander reported collectively receiving more than $29,000 last year from 10 other Upstate public agencies, including $18,054 from the city of Seneca. The Nerve in January reported that from December 2008 through May 2014, Alexander spent a total of more than $36,000 in campaign funds on labeled printing, mailings and office supplies from Alexander’s Office Supply.

Alexander, who has been in the Senate since 1994 after previously serving in the House from 1987-94, did not return a phone message left Friday by The Nerve at Alexander’s Office Supply.

In Lexington County, Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, a Democrat and lawyer, reported receiving $46,897 in legal fees last year from the city of West Columbia, plus another $21,519 and $4,388 from the town of Lexington and Lexington County Health District, respectively, for legal work, according to his statement of economic interests.

In a written response Friday to The Nerve, Assistant West Columbia Administrator Brian Carter said Setzler is the “city’s attorney and is compensated accordingly.” He has been the city attorney since 1992, according to the Setzler & Scott law firm’s website; he has been in the Senate since 1977.

As for his legal work in Lexington, town attorney Brad Cunningham said Friday in an email  to The Nerve that Setzler was hired to “assist in some litigation the town was involved in,” noting Setzler “helped mediate a settlement in a long standing and very complicated property dispute” involving a company that operates a local golf course.

Setzler, a member of the Senate Ethics Committee, did not return a phone message left Friday by The Nerve at his law office.

Sen. John Scott, D-Richland and president of C&S Consulting, reported receiving a total of $20,625 in consulting fees from the city of Columbia last year, though his statement of economic interests didn’t give specifics on the consulting services.

Asked for details, Scott told The Nerve: “We do mass transit. We do roads. We do federal earmarks. … There are not a lot of specialists in transportation.” City spokesman Jared Glover could not immediately provide any immediate answers about Scott’s consulting services when contacted Friday.

Scott, who joined the Senate in 2009 after serving in the House from 1990-2008, sits on the Senate Transportation Committee. But he said his position as senator does not conflict with his job as a transportation consultant.

“Nope, nope, nope,” he said when asked if there were any conflicts of interest.

South Carolina Policy Council research intern Danny Morris 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.