USC Lobbyist Also Lobbied for Private Companies, Records Show

October 2, 2012

Investigative Reports

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University of South CarolinaA University of South Carolina administrator who lobbies on behalf of the school also has been a paid lobbyist for two major companies that have been vendors for the state’s flagship university, The Nerve found in a review of state records.

Shirley D. Mills, USC’s director of governmental and community relations and legislative liaison, earns $139,693 annually as the director and an adjunct faculty member, according to a state salary database maintained by the S.C. Budget and Control Board.

State Ethics Commission records show that Mills earned $27,360 annually in lobbyist income from the university in 2009 and 2010, $29,825 in 2011 and $13,161 for the first five months of this year.

Mills in 2009 earned $21,000 in lobbyist income from AT&T Services Inc., $18,900 annually in 2010 and 2011, and $7,875 from January through May this year, records show.

She also earned $7,000 in lobbyist income last year from online retail giant Amazon.com.

USC paid AT&T a total of $2.3 million last fiscal year, including $1.4 million for Wi-Fi services, and another $153,035 so far this fiscal year, which started July 1, according to the university’s spending transparency website. Amazon received $79,998 last fiscal year from the university and another $11,869 so far this fiscal year, records show.

Contacted Monday, John Crangle, director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause of South Carolina, said Mills’ lobbying arrangement “raises very serious questions for me.”

“Say you’re on the university’s clock from 8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon,” Crangle, an attorney, said. “If she’s over there (at the State House) doing lobbying (for a private company), that’s obviously a conflict of interest.”

Cathy Hazelwood, chief attorney and deputy director at the State Ethics Commission, said last week that Mills would not have violated any state ethics laws as long as she was not directly involved with contracts between the university and AT&T or Amazon.

“There’s no prohibition in the Act (for) Ms. Mills’ arrangement,” Hazelwood told The Nerve in a written response.

Hazelwood provided The Nerve with a 2007 Ethics Commission ruling in a similar case involving Edwin D. Givens, who at the time was South Carolina State University’s chief attorney and a lobbyist for the university, as well as a registered lobbyist for Waste Management Corp. of South Carolina.

The commission in its ruling said Givens didn’t violate any ethics laws because there was no evidence he had any involvement in the contract between the S.C. State and Waste Management, or that he was lobbying for Waste Management during university hours.

The Nerve last week left three phone messages and a written message for Mills seeking comment. Mills, whose university work number is listed with the Office of the President, responded by email Friday saying she would contact a Nerve reporter later that day but did not respond by publication of this story.

Wes Hickman, USC’s chief spokesman, did not respond to a written message from The Nerve last week seeking comment about whether Mills was involved with any contracts with the companies she lobbied for, or whether she lobbied for the firms during her university hours.

The Nerve reported in September 2011 that USC circumvented a first-ever state budget proviso banning state agencies from using general funds for lobbying, creating a new State House lobbying position and hiring Trey Walker, a former deputy chief of staff for Gov. Nikki Haley, to fill the post at an annual salary of $135,000.

Walker reported $11,250 in lobbyist income from the university last year, according to his Ethics Commission report. It is unclear whether his and Mills’ lobbyist income reported to the commission is included in, or is in addition to, their annual university salaries. Walker’s current annual salary with the university is $139,050, according to the state salary database maintained by the Budget and Control Board.

Walker and Mills are listed as the university’s registered lobbyists for this year, according to Ethics Commission records. Unlike Mills, Walker is not registered with the state as a lobbyist for any private company.

USC’s main campus reported a total of $53,680 in lobbyist payments and related expenses in 2010, $59,162 in 2011, and $28,106 from January through May this year, Ethics Commission records show. In addition, USC’s Upstate campus listed $11,000 in annual lobbyist payments in 2010 and 2011, and $5,500 through the first five months of this year, according to records.

The Nerve reported in March that USC and 15 other state agencies and institutions collectively spent at least $320,000 since June 2011 lobbying state lawmakers, despite the state budget proviso banning those agencies from using general funds for that purpose. The Nerve’s review found that agencies were getting around the proviso by spending “other” funds, which include such things as college tuition and various fees charged by agencies, on lobbying.

The Nerve last week left several written and phone messages for Givens, who formerly was with S.C. State, but received no response before publication of this story. University spokeswoman Erica Prioleau-Taylor did not respond to a phone message last week seeking comment.

Givens, who was the university’s general counsel and chief of staff at the time, was one of eight high-ranking employees fired in February by then-University President George Cooper after an internal investigation into unspecified allegations. Cooper resigned his post the following month; the university faces a $5.5 million deficit this school year, according to media reports.

State Ethics Commission records show that Givens received $10,000 in lobbyist income from Waste Management in 2009, $14,000 in 2010, $24,000 in 2011 and $10,000 through the first five months of this year. He earned $14,000 in lobbyist income from the S.C. State in 2009 and $9,000 last year, records show.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.