Nepotism Common in University Board Appointments

May 9, 2016

Investigative Reports

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By RON AIKEN

University of South Carolina

University boards starting to look like legislative family reunions.

The practice of nepotism is rarely exercised so brazenly as it is in the nomination of legislators’ family members and friends to college boards of trustees/visitors.

Last week, that exercise in patriarchal patronage was paraded out again as good government by the Joint Legislative Committee to Screen Candidates for College and University Boards of Trustees, which selected five immediate family members of legislators to govern the boards of the top public and private schools in the state, schools with budgets larger than any city or county council in the state.

Consider the individuals who by virtue of their relationships with legislators were named last week to the highest positions of power running agencies with the largest budgets in state government:

  • Robert L. Peeler, brother of Sen. Harvey Peeler (R-Cherokee and the chairman of the nominating committee), to Clemson University’s Board of Trustees. Clemson’s 2015 budget: $703 million.
  • Karen Leatherman, daughter of Senate Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence), to the Board of Trustees for Francis Marion University (2015 budget: $52 million). Leatherman himself is a trustee emeritus at FMU himself and has his name on a school science building.
  • Restaurant and gambling-tour business owner Michael Stavrinakis, brother of failed Charleston mayoral candidate Rep. Leon Stavrinakis (D-Charleston), to the board of the Medical University of South Carolina (2015 budget $605M).
  • Cayce contractor William H. Bingham, fatherof Rep. Kenny Bingham (R-Lexington), to the board of MUSC where he has been a member since 2002.
  • Murrell Smith, father of Rep. G. Murrell Smith Jr. (R-Sumter), to the MUSC board (member since 2013).

In a rare failure of legislative influence, coming off a board last week was Pansy King-Reid, a member of the College of Charleston board from 2013-16 and brother of Rep. John King (D-York). She was widely criticized during her nomination process in 2013 for years of failing to file income taxes and yet still was elected.

The reason nepotism is a problem, of course, isn’t merely that it looks unseemly (though it does). The problem with nepotism is that it creates the possibility and thus the appearance of conflicts of interest. Murrell Smith, for example, recently co-sponsored a proposal to spend $50 million on a new children’s hospital at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Adding to the murkiness is the process by which university board members are nominated.  The nominating body is the polysyllabic Joint Legislative Committee to Screen Candidates for College and University Boards of Trustees. Sen. Harvey Peeler, brother of Robert (see the first item above), chairs the committee.

The statutory authority consists of a hazy section of the law code (2-20-10 and 2-20-15) on screening and electing “nonjudicial” offices. This section of the code provides no specifics on who should be on the committee or what criteria nominees should meet.

It does, however, specify a rather strange way of advertising the openings. According to state law, “a notice of the position vacancy must be forwarded to three newspapers of general circulation . . . with a request that it be published at least once a week for four consecutive weeks.”

RATIONALIZING NEPOTISM

Nearly as eye-opening as the nepotistic appointments themselves are the quotes lawmakers and their family come up with to rationalize them. Here are just a few samples collected from various media sources:

“I just want to give back to the university that got me started. The biggest thing is that I’m from Florence. I have a business in downtown Florence, and I am an alumni of FMU (as opposed to her opposition, Rev. Mary Finklea). That speaks for itself.
–Karen Leatherman, who owns Fitness Forum in Florence. (Leatherman’s mother, Jean, graduated from FMU, is a realtor and sits on the MUSC Board of Visitors.)

“I have been thoroughly and seriously vetted by many, many legislators. Just because you might be related to a legislator, they are not just taking that you are qualified for granted. They are doing their due diligence.”
–Michael Stavrinakis.

“I’m not for disenfranchising a whole class of people just because they might be related to a legislator.”
–House Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Delleney, R-Chester, in his opposition to a 2013 bill that would have prevented appointing legislators’ immediate family members to college boards of trustees. The bill failed.

“Karen will do an outstanding job. She’s dedicated, and she’s her own person.”
–Sen. Hugh Leatherman.

How does such blatant nepotism receive no adverse scrutiny or public outrage? In part because the practice is so longstanding and widespread and in part because it is legal, according to the S.C. Ethics Commission.

While the law states that public officials may not “cause the employment, appointment, promotion, transfer, or advancement of a family member to a state or local office or position in which the public official, public member, or public employee supervises or manages,” the fact that legislators do not directly manage universities apparently provides the wiggle room needed for the practice to flourish.

In a 2013 interview about the topic, then-Ethics Commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood said only an individual complaint brought to the House or Senate ethics committee could possibly challenge the practice. By state law, the S.C. Ethics Commission has no authority over House and Senate members, and there are no qualifications governing college board membership with the exception that trustee members at The Citadel must be Citadel graduates.

In short: If you want to be on a college board, you’d better have a lawmaker in your family.

Reach Aiken at (803) 254-4411 or email him at ron@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC.