State Agencies Spent $700,000 on Lobbying in 2012

July 19, 2012

Investigative Reports

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2240bfc7f85a52e376f4621a27409d2fMore than a dozen state agencies disregarded the intent of state law and collectively spent at least $700,000 on lobbying last fiscal year, a review by The Nerve has found.

The exact total is unknown at this time, but likely higher, because two state entities – the Department of Natural Resources and The Citadel – failed to file disclosure forms by a June 30 deadline as required by state law.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and The Citadel also missed a 10-day grace period to file after the deadline.

At a minimum, that subjects DNR and The Citadel to small fines of $100 each. But the penalties would increase significantly if the two entities continue to violate the law by failing to file their lobbying disclosures.

The group of state agencies – about two-thirds of them colleges and universities – spent big bucks trying to influence legislators despite a new state law explicitly aimed at stamping out taxpayer-funded lobbying.

In a first, the law was written into the state budget for the 2012 fiscal year, which ended June 30, as a one-year proviso. And it was renewed in the budget for this fiscal year, which started July 1.

However, the proviso contains a loophole: It prohibits state entities from using general state funds for lobbying but does not extend the ban to “other” funds, which derive mostly from fees and fines, including tuition.

“It needs to be addressed statutorily,” Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Greenville and sponsor of the proviso, told The Nerve for a previous story on publicly funded lobbying in South Carolina.

At least four bills to make state taxpayer-funded lobbying illegal were introduced in the recently ended legislative session: H. 4081, H. 3175, S. 259 and S. 82.

None of the bills made much headway, but their number has increased from years gone by. And the proviso, despite its limitations, breaks new ground in the effort to outlaw lobbying by state employees on public time and the public dime.

Of the at least $700,000 agencies spent working the General Assembly last fiscal year, as reported in S.C. Ethics Commission records, the top five in rounded figures were:

  • Medical University of South Carolina – $127,000;
  • Clemson University – $118,000;
  • University of South Carolina-Columbia – $64,000;
  • Santee Cooper (Public Service Authority) – $52,000; and
  • College of Charleston – $48,000

The other entities that spent money lobbying against the intent of state law were:

  • The Administrative Law Court, the Judicial Department and the State Ports Authority;
  • Coastal Carolina, Francis Marion, Lander, S.C. State, USC-Upstate and Winthrop universities; and
  • Florence-Darlington, Greenville and Tri-County Technical colleges.

Lobbyists and their employers must file financial disclosures with the Ethics Commission twice a year – by Jan. 31 and by June 30.

The Nerve arrived at the $700,000 figure by totaling all state entities’ lobbying expenditures as reported on their forms for those two filing periods this year, nearly the same timeframe as fiscal 2012.

The Department of Natural Resources and The Citadel missed the June 30 deadline, though, and still had not filed as of Wednesday.

A recorded message on DNR spokesman Brett Witt’s cell phone Wednesday said he would be out of the office until Monday.

A voice message left Wednesday morning with R. Derrick Meggie, listed on the DNR website as the agency’s legislative services director, was not returned.

Molly Price, who works in the office of DNR’s chief counsel, took a message and jotted down questions around lunchtime Wednesday, but no one from the agency called or emailed back before the posting time for this story.

The Citadel’s noncompliance resulted from the school’s lobbyist, Cardon Crawford, suffering a death in the family that required him to leave the state for an extended time, Crawford told The Nerve.

“The bottom line is, it’s nothing more than an oversight,” said Crawford, whose official title is government affairs and community relations director for The Citadel. “I’m going to get it filed by Monday.”

He said he did not know the figures for the school’s lobbying expenditures off the top of his head.

After the Jan. 31 and June 30 deadlines to file, a 10-day grace period kicks in, during which no penalties are assessed if the required forms are submitted, according to Ethics Commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood.

Following the grace period, the commission sends violators a $100 fine letter.

That’s arguably a mere drop in the bucket for any operation that can afford to employ a lobbyist.

“However, it can become punitive pretty quickly if you ignore it,” Hazelwood says.

In such cases, two weeks after the first $100 fine letter the Ethics Commission sends a certified letter levying an additional $10-per-day fine upon receipt, for 10 days.

On the 11th day, the per-day penalty increases to $100, maxing out at $5,000.

Although state entities might seem least likely to break the filing rules, it’s happened before.

The S.C. Technical College System several weeks ago got slapped with $2,800 in fines for filing a disclosure form months late.

“They had a complaint,” Hazelwood says. “They went the distance on the whole deal, which is pretty much a first for us.”

Investigative Reporter Rick Brundrett and Nerve intern Blake Welch contributed to this report.

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.