USC Circumvents State Law, Creates New Lobbying Position

September 14, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveCircumventing a new state law designed to eliminate taxpayer-funded lobbying, the University of South Carolina has created a new State House lobbying job and hired a high-profile political operative to fill the position at a cool $135,000 per year.

Trey Walker, a former state Republican Party director and most recently a top member of Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration, is USC’s “new director of state relations,” the university announced in a Sept. 1 news release.

Walker’s annual salary in the newly created position is $135,000, according to USC spokeswoman Margaret Lamb.

“Walker will coordinate activities related to USC with members of the S.C. General Assembly,” the university’s news release says.

The statement also says Walker “will establish and maintain relationships with elected officials and serve as a liaison between the university and state officials and their staffs.”

Walker could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

The creation and filling of Walker’s position by USC appears to directly contradict the intent of what might be the first measure the Legislature has passed in an effort to stamp out publicly funded lobbying by state entities.

In fact, the measure specifically names the University of South Carolina, along with a book bag full of other state-supported colleges and universities as well as several state agencies.

Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Greenville, sponsored the crackdown on taxpayer-funded lobbying as a proviso in this fiscal year’s state budget.

The proviso apparently is groundbreaking in South Carolina. A search of state budgets archived on the Legislature’s website dating back to the 1996-97 fiscal year shows that nothing like the proviso has passed in at least 15 years.

Nevertheless, the proviso features loopholes that USC and other state-funded entities can exploit to continue paying their employees to schmooze legislators in the polished halls of the State House.

For example, while the proviso bars the use of general fund revenue from the state to compensate employees who lobby, it does not extend that prohibition to federal and “other” funds.

And other funds include one of the largest sources of money for colleges – tuition.

The Nerve submitted emailed questions to Lamb for this story and she sent back answers to some of them, but did not reveal the source of funds for Walker’s salary.

He began working for USC on Monday, Lamb said.

Efforts to reach Bedingfield on Monday and Tuesday were unsuccessful.

The intent behind his proviso speaks for itself. The wording of it begins, “In order to eliminate taxpayer funded lobbying …”

The measure directs the entities named in it to return certain dollar amounts to the state’s coffers. In USC’s case, it’s more than $53,000 for the main campus in Columbia and $11,000 for USC Upstate.

The amounts, based on estimations of how much the schools and agencies would spend on lobbying this budget year, total about $604,000 in taxpayer savings.

Bedingfield’s proviso also forbids state entities from using general funds to contract with outside lobbying firms.

Provisos are specially crafted legislative edicts assigned a number and written into the annual state budget. They expire after one year unless renewed. (Click here to read Bedingfield’s proviso, 90.20, on the Legislature’s website.)

So, why did USC create its new chief lobbyist position – and, for that matter, why does the university believe that it’s necessary to employ a lobbyist in the first place?

“The Office of Government and Community Relations was reorganized to strengthen and expand outreach and advocacy efforts on behalf of the university,” Lamb wrote in answering the first part of that question.

“There were two lobbyists employed by the university for several years, and at times, three. Casey Martin is no longer a registered lobbyist, and Trey Walker has assumed that part of the duties.”

Martin is now USC’s “assistant director for advocacy” and is not lobbying, Lamb said.

The director of state relations position was advertised “and applicants were interviewed in a fair and open process, according to state HR (human resources) guidelines,” she added. “The position was not created for one person, but rather, the position was created and searched through HR processes.”

In the university’s news release, USC Vice President for Communications Luanne Lawrence said, “During the interview process, it was clear that he (Walker) had the established contacts in the General Assembly, the governor’s office and throughout the state of South Carolina that USC needs in growing its presence.”

Before landing his new job, Walker was being paid a salary of $122,000 and change as Haley’s deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs and communications.

He was still listed in that position on Haley’s website as of Tuesday afternoon.

Haley in the USC statement described Walker as a “talented, loyal and committed guy” whom the university is “lucky to have.”

Prior to joining Haley’s staff, Walker was chief spokesman for former S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, who also has snagged a new gig at USC. McMaster reportedly is knocking down $191,000 per year as a fundraiser for the university.

As to why USC thinks it needs a lobbyist, Lamb said Carolina wants to ensure “that the university’s interests and achievements are represented before a body as important as the General Assembly.”

She elaborated that the duties of USC’s “governmental affairs representatives” extend “well beyond Statehouse efforts” to include “advocacy, outreach and keeping key external constituencies informed of university initiatives, successes, and outreach efforts.”

“Their responsibilities also include working with local elected officials and community groups,” Lamb added.

As the old saying goes, it’s nice work – if you can get it.

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