Did I say that out loud?

March 12, 2017

Inside Insight, Uncategorized

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By PHILLIP CEASE

South Carolina Senate

Conflicts of interest begin to seem standard

Last week, as the state Senate discussed the so-called pension reform bill, Senator Sandy Senn stood up to ask a few very specific questions about a proposed amendment and how it would affect law enforcement officers.

In looking into why she had a very narrow interest about what the bill would do for police, I found that she was an attorney who has worked for the South Carolina Sherriff’s Association, based on her Statement of Economic Interest.

The SEI is a yearly statement that elected officials and candidates file to disclose where they get certain sources of income. Senn’s SEI states that her law firm, Sennlegal, LLC, received $1,214 in legal fees from the SC Sheriff’s Association in 2015 — the most recent year she filed an SEI. In fact, all disclosed money added up to over $995,000, with the big fees coming from the Insurance Reserve Fund ($875,264.03), the Department of Transportation ($88,956), and the South Carolina Association of Countywide Elected Executives ($14,731.19). Senn’s stated total was just over $118,000, far short of the almost $1 million the fees added up to.

In an interesting note, Senn made sure to state on the SEI that none of the money was income, but a “cost reimbursement” to Sennlegal, of which she is the sole shareholder. A similar way to phrase this is saying your job doesn’t pay you, but reimburses you for your time and effort.

This may not seem like a huge issue to some, but it is. What happened — and it isn’t exclusive to Senn — is that a legislator who directly benefits from a lobbyist principal or a government-funded entity got involved with passing legislation that affects her employer, client or nonprofit.

The most recent and most severe example was the indictment of Representative Jimmy Merrill, who was charged with soliciting and accepting cash from groups that wanted legislation passed.

However, this type of thing happens all the time. From an earlier Nerve article:

  • Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter is a longtime member of the House Ways and Means Committee. In 2013, she inserted a $200,000 earmark for her own nonprofit organization.
  • Senator Thomas Alexander from Oconee has made over $830,000 since 2010 through government contracts by selling office supplies to local governments in his district, Clemson University, and industries that he oversees as a legislator.
  • Senator Hugh Leatherman’s company, Florence Concrete, has made millions off state contracts as a subcontractor. Since Florence Concrete is a subcontractor, Leatherman is not required to disclose the money he makes from these projects.
  • Senator John Scott took in $49,500 from the city of Columbia for consulting on the city’s unsuccessful attempt to secure funding from the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank.

Clearly this isn’t a problem exclusive to Senn but one widespread throughout the legislature. The members just don’t typically announce it on the floor of the Senate.

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