Some Lawmakers Not Reporting County Delegation Payments

June 4, 2014

Investigative Reports

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Sumpter CountySumter County this fiscal year shelled out a collective $39,000 to seven lawmakers who represent the county in lieu of providing them a local delegation office as mandated by state law, county records obtained by The Nerve show.

Although the “in-district” payments by counties are considered taxable income, three Sumter County delegation members – Sen. Kevin Johnson and Reps. Joe Neal and Robert Ridgeway  – didn’t report their amounts on their most recently filed annual income-disclosure reports, called statements of economic interests, with the State Ethics Commission as required by law, The Nerve’s review found.

Contacted on May 23 by The Nerve, Johnson, a retired regional manager with the S.C. Department of Revenue, said he would amend his income-disclosure report to reflect his $6,500 payment from Sumter County last year. Ethics Commission records show he amended his report the same day.

“I don’t even remember it being that much,” Johnson said. “I actually forgot about it, but if it was that much, I’ll have to yield to them.”

Johnson’s home county is Clarendon, though he also represents parts of Sumter, Darlington and Florence counties. His initial income-disclosure report filed in March year listed a $7,000 payment from Clarendon County last year, though it didn’t list the Sumter County payment.

The Nerve on May 23 reached Neal by phone, who said he was in a meeting at the time and that he would call back later, though he didn’t do so. Neal, a minister whose home county is Richland, is the Richland County delegation chairman. Richland County provides an office for its delegation.

Ridgeway, a physician based in Clarendon County, did not return a phone message left for him by The Nerve. His income-disclosure form lists a $4,760  “allowance for delegation office” in Clarendon County in 2013, though he didn’t report his payment from Sumter County.

The Nerve last month received copies of individual checks written last year by Sumter County to the seven delegation members after filing a request under the state Freedom of Information Act. All seven checks were dated July 23, 2013 – 22 days after the start of the fiscal year – which means the lawmakers received lump-sum payments up front.

Following is the list of delegation members with their July 2013 payment amounts and party affiliation in parentheses:

  • Rep. David Weeks (D), the delegation chairman:  $10,000;
  • Rep. Murrell Smith (R):  $8,000;
  • Sen. Thomas McElveen (D):  $8,000;
  • Sen. Kevin Johnson (D):  $6,500;
  • Rep. Grady Brown (D):  $3,000;
  • Rep. Joe Neal (D):  $2,500; and
  • Rep. Robert Ridgeway (D):  $1,000

“As before, please deliver the checks to my office and I will deliver them as issued,” Weeks said in a July 19, 2013, letter to Sumter County Administrator Gary Mixon.

In addition, Weeks in the letter directed Mixon to cut a separate $300 check to Johnson and a $420 check to the Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce under the heading, “From the carry-over funds 2012-13 budget.”

Weeks, an attorney based in Sumter and vice-chairman of the House Ethics Committee, didn’t return several recent phone messages from The Nerve seeking comment.

Johnson said it was his understanding that the amounts paid by Sumter County are based on the percentage of the county represented by individual delegation members.

In a written response last month to The Nerve, Pamela Craven, Sumter County’s finance director, said the “carry-over” phrasing in the July 2013 letter regarding Johnson’s $300 check was “not the correct terminology.”

“It was the remaining funds in FY 2013,” she said. “The letters got crossed somehow, and the July request included what they had asked for in June. It was a proper FY 2013 entry.”

As for the $420 check to the chamber of commerce, Craven said only, “I really don’t know the reason for that check.”

Act 283 of 1975, better known as the Home Rule Act, requires county councils to “provide office space and appropriations for the operation of the county legislative delegation office including compensation for staff personnel and necessary office supplies and equipment.”

The law allows the delegations to dictate how much counties have to budget annually for the delegation offices, and also control the hiring and firing of office staff.

In recent years, lawmakers have gone beyond the 1975 law, giving themselves the authority through an annual state budget proviso to reduce state aid to counties by the unfunded amounts for local delegations, plus add in a 25 percent surcharge for “administrative costs” as payment to the delegations.

The Nerve revealed last month that at least six counties, including Sumter County, that didn’t provide delegation offices last year made substitute payments to lawmakers.

Those payments often were in addition to the legislators’ $10,400 annual base salary and another $12,000 in “in-district” payments yearly funded with state tax dollars. The Senate last month approved a budget proviso allowing all lawmakers starting next year to claim an additional $12,000 annually in in-district payments, though senators included no line item for it in the proposed fiscal 2015 budget, ignoring a balanced-budget requirement in the state constitution, as reported by The Nerve.

Budget writers have been meeting in secret – bypassing the more traditional public conference-committee process – to craft a final state budget that supposedly will be voted on by the entire General Assembly before this year’s regular legislative session ends on Thursday. Whether the proposed pay hike for lawmakers will be part of the final budget remains to be seen; if included, Gov. Nikki Haley could veto it, which would force the Legislature to decide whether to override the veto when it returns later this month to act on any vetoes.

Johnson told The Nerve that the $6,500 he received from Sumter County last year as his in-district payment allowed him to “hire some administrative help” and cover other expenses of “going back and forth” to Sumter. Besides the Sumter and Clarendon County in-district payments last year, Johnson also received $39,013 in state retirement income and the following payments from the Senate, according to his income-disclosure form:

  • $12,000 in in-district payments, funded with state tax dollars;
  • $10,400 base legislative salary;
  • $8,533 in “subsistence” payments to cover hotel and food costs while in Columbia during the legislative session;
  • $750 for postage; and
  • $70 in “per diem” payments.

“It gets expensive,” said Johnson, the former longtime mayor of Manning, when asked about his county expenses representing Sumter County. “If you ask people, they’ll tell you I’m probably as much in Sumter County as I’m in Clarendon County.”

Getting the annual in-district payment from Sumter County is relatively easy, Johnson said.

“They send it to the delegation chairman, and he calls me and tells me he’s got a check,” he said.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.