S.C. lawmakers treated to out-of-state conferences on taxpayers’ dime

January 19, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

South Carolina taxpayers last fiscal year shelled out more than $50,000 to send 27 lawmakers to “educational” conferences across the country, travel records reviewed by The Nerve show.

Most of those lawmakers who took trips in 2017 didn’t specify the reimbursed expenses on their latest annual income-disclosure reports, The Nerve’s review found – nor are they required to under state ethics laws.

Besides receiving taxpayer-funded junkets, legislators also are wined and dined annually at expensive getaways paid by special interests with business before the General Assembly.

Both the House and Senate have plenty of taxpayer money to send their members on pricey trips, given the chambers’ fat budgets and reserves. The Nerve in September reported that the 124-member House had a $25 million general-fund surplus as of the start of the fiscal year on July 1 – nearly $2.9 million more than its fiscal 2018 budget – while the 46-member Senate carried over $6.1 million into this fiscal year – 43 percent of its 2018 budget.

Asked if there were any caps on reimbursed conference expenses, Senate Clerk Jeff Gossett in an email this week to The Nerve said senators “generally are limited to a maximum of three conferences per year,” noting they are “allowed basic reimbursement costs,” such as “standard transportation, hotel, and the state-set amount for daily meals.”

House Clerk Charles Reid told The Nerve that conference expenses are capped this fiscal year at $1,900 per lawmaker, which would come to a total of $235,600 if every House member claimed the maximum taxpayer-funded benefit.

The cap last fiscal year was $1,700, according to a letter from House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, to House members. Lucas’ letter said the reimbursements were for expenses “incurred to attend educational legislative conferences (non-campaign and non-partisan conferences),” including “registration fees, travel expenses (mileage, air travel, etc.), lodging (hotel expenses), and meals to be reimbursed at the rate established by state law.”

Legislative travel records provided by the S.C. Comptroller General’s Office to The Nerve under the state Freedom of Information Act show that the House and Senate in fiscal 2018, which started July 1, 2017, and ended last June 30, collectively spent $52,919 for 27 lawmakers to attend 10 out-out-state conferences that spanned from Boston to San Francisco.

Expenses connected to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL) conference in Boston in August 2017 were covered for 22 of the 27 lawmakers, with directly paid or reimbursed costs per legislator ranging from $625 to $3,429, records show. Seven lawmakers had various expenses paid for two or three taxpayer-funded trips last fiscal year.

And the destinations offer plenty of pampering for lawmakers. The Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, where the NCSL conference was held, boasts on its website of a 40,020-square-foot grand ballroom “offering breathtaking views of the Boston Seaport,” and that its “innovative executive chefs and their teams are always eager to customize something new from our creative menus to surprise and delight your guests.” Records show that several lawmakers stayed at higher-end hotels in the area.

Some travel records provided to The Nerve appeared to be incomplete. The Senate, for example, covered the $625 registration fee for the Boston conference for Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, though records show no reimbursements for other trip-related expenses. According to Leatherman’s income-disclosure statement filed last March with the State Ethics Commission, he received another $1,000 from the NCSL as a “travel stipend” gift.

As has been his longstanding practice with The Nerve, Leatherman, the longtime Senate Finance Committee chairman who received the title “president pro tempore emeritus” this month, didn’t reply to a written message this week seeking comment.

The Senate covered a total of $2,575 in Boston conference costs incurred by newly appointed Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, comptroller general records show. Peeler didn’t return a phone message this week.

The NCSL, which has offices in Washington, D.C., and Denver, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment about whether it covers the costs of certain lawmakers attending organization events. Its mission, according to its website, is to “improve the quality and effectiveness of state legislatures,” “promote policy innovation and communication among state legislatures,” and “ensure state legislatures as a strong, cohesive voice in the federal system.”

Whether lawmakers need to spend thousands of tax dollars to attend out-of-state NCSL events to obtain information is debatable, given that, according to its website, the organization offers free webinars to state legislators and their staff to “bring you the latest news on important state policy issues as well as training to hone your professional skills.”

Leatherman and Peeler sit on the Senate Ethics Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester. Bennett did not respond to a phone message this week from The Nerve seeking comment about reporting requirements.

State ethics law requires elected officials to report on their annual income-disclosure reports, known as statements of economic interests (SEIs), reimbursements from a host organization for travel, lodging and meal expenses at conferences if they were a guest speaker, or if the official received those benefits as a gift from the event host.

But no law requires reporting reimbursements from a government agency for approved conferences that an elected official attended, according to Meghan Walker, the State Ethics Commission director, and Jane Shuler, chief lawyer for the House Ethics Committee.

Special interest influence

Most of the 27 lawmakers who were approved for taxpayer-funded, out-of-state conferences last fiscal year reported receiving other trips covered by special interest groups, The Nerve found in a review of their SEIs.

Of those legislators, Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, chairman of the Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, reported, under the gifts section of his SEI, the highest amount of travel-related expenses in 2017 paid for by outside groups. His SEI shows that in 2017, he accepted a total of more than $24,000 in travel, lodging and meals from nine organizations, including nearly $9,000 in NCSL-covered expenses. He reported he was a guest speaker at seven events in South Carolina and elsewhere in the country, including New York, Detroit and Washington, D.C.

Of the total gifted trips, $8,431 was covered by the “Senate Forum,” Alexander reported, which he noted was a national organization. The “Senate Presidents’ Forum” describes itself on its website as a “non-partisan educational forum where State Senate leaders work together and share best practices to improve public policy in their States.”

According to the New York-based organization’s federal income-tax records, the group “hosts three educational conferences each year, where legislative leaders engage in open and productive discussions, leveraging their shared experiences and gaining insight from globally recognized experts.” Alexander listed three separate groupings of “Senate Forum” trips on his SEI filed last March.

The Senate Presidents’ Forum fall 2017 conference was held in Prague in the Czech Republic, and the summer conference that year was in Newport, Rhode Island, according to its website.

Although the site says that no “lobbying or political fundraising is permitted at Forum events,” the organizations lists 40 sponsors, including some of the largest corporations in the U.S. and major trade organizations. The Nerve’s review of State Ethics Commission records found that at least 15 of the 40 sponsors are registered lobbyist principals in South Carolina, including AT&T, Eli Lilly, Google, Pfizer, State Farm, T-Mobile, UPS and Walmart.

Neither Alexander nor Senate Presidents’ Forum officials responded to phone messages this week from The Nerve seeking comment.

South Carolina-based lobbyist principals also sponsored trips for lawmakers. In 2017, for example, the South Carolina Beer Wholesalers Association covered conference expenses for at least five of the 27 lawmakers: Reps. Wes Newton, R-Beaufort, and Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee; and Sens. Greg Hembree, R-Horry; Floyd Nicholson, D-Greenwood; and Luke Rankin, R-Horry, according to their SEIs.

Sandifer, the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee chairman; Rankin, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman; Hembree, the Senate Education Committee chairman; and Nicholson were guest conference speakers, according to their SEIs. Sandifer reported that the July 2017 event was held on Kiawah Island.

Sandifer and Rankin did not respond to messages this week from The Nerve. Ken Emery, the Wholesalers Association’s board chairman, referred questions about the 2017 conference to the organization’s director, Lance Boozer, who could not be reached for comment.

Who went where

Following is a list of the 27 lawmakers whose approved out-of-state conferences in fiscal 2018 were covered in whole or in part by taxpayers, according to S.C. comptroller general records:

NCSL Legislative Summit, Boston: Reps. Bill Bowers, D-Hampton*; Gary Clary, R-Pickens; Derham Cole, R-Spartanburg*; Neal Collins, R-Pickens; Raye Felder, R-York; Phyllis Henderson, R-Greenville*; John King, D-York; Wes Newton, R-Beaufort; Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee; and Jay West, R-Anderson.

Also, Sens. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee; Mike Gambrell, R-Anderson; Greg Hembree, R-Horry; Kevin Johnson, D-Clarendon; Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence; Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington; Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee; Luke Rankin, R-Horry; Ronnie Sabb, D-Williamsburg; Sandy Senn, R-Charleston; Danny Verdin, R-Laurens; and Kent Williams, D-Marion.

NCSL Capitol Forum, Coronado, California: Malloy.

American Legislative Exchange Council annual meeting, Denver: Reps. Carl Anderson, D-Georgetown, and Russell Fry, R-Horry; Sen. Williams.

Southern Legislative Conference, Biloxi, Mississippi: Sens. Floyd Nicholson, D-Greenwood, and Verdin.

National Black Caucus of State Legislators, Indianapolis: Reps. Anderson and King.

Legislative Ag Chairs Summit, Kansas City, Missouri: Verdin.

Women in Government conference, San Francisco: Rep. Heather Crawford, R-Horry.

Governing Summit on Financial Leadership, New York: Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg.

Southern Regional Education Board conference, Boca Raton, Florida:  Martin.

Emerging Leaders Program, Charlottesville, Virginia:  Senn.

*former lawmakers

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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