Scoppe: Business as usual

Associate EditorSeptember 30, 2010 

IT USED TO be commonplace, Sen. Jack Lindsay once told me, for young lawyers to run for the Legislature in order to build their law practices. If they lost, they still picked up some clients, just because more people knew their names. If they won, they could expect a significant uptick, because their names were in the public eye all the time, and as long as they kept their noses clean, they were people whom voters/potential clients felt like they could trust.

What our state’s last larger-than-life rural baron didn’t say, but what he and lots of other lawyers of his era and before demonstrated, was that there was money to be made in Columbia as well. The power companies and other businesses that needed legislative favors found it easy to endear themselves to individual legislators by putting them on retainer — paying them merely to be “on call” in case needed; it didn’t hurt that legislators elected the judges.

Over time, we moved from one senator per county to districts drawn according to population, which concentrated legislators in urban and suburban areas where that extra little publicity wasn’t worth as much; the emergence of the Republican Party brought more business people into politics and provided ideological competition in legislative races; and more people from all sorts of professions started crowding out lawyers. So the methods evolved, but it remained fairly commonplace for legislators to make money that they wouldn’t have made if they weren’t in the Legislature. They were doing good for the state, they figured, so they deserved to do well for themselves.

When I was a reporter covering Operation Lost Trust, I wrote an article about the professions of the legislators who were caught selling their votes. Some had legitimate jobs; but several had murkier means of making a living: They listed themselves in the Legislative Manual as a “businessman,” with no named business or business address; they were “consultants” who made thousands of dollars in government grants and contracts. One tried to run a call girl operation out of his House office. Another sent out letters to lobbyists asking if they would be willing to pay $1,000 a year to join a private lobbyists club.

The ethics law that was written in response to Lost Trust didn’t outlaw the money-making opportunities, but it outed them, and made them potentially less advantageous to the purchasers. Legislators were prohibited from voting on matters that directly affected their clients or employers, including the budget of any agency they had a business relationship with, and they couldn’t represent clients before boards and commissions whose members they had helped appoint in the previous year. Probably more importantly, they had to report all their income from businesses and organizations that hired lobbyists, and list their contracts and income from government agencies.

The sunlight curtailed the storied practice of utilities keeping powerful legislators on retainer. So much so that within a decade, the mere fact that House Speaker David Wilkins, a prominent divorce lawyer, was hired by a utility to work on a highly technical rate case raised a firestorm. Although some critics suggested that BellSouth put him on its payroll in order to gain legislative support, I always thought the company was more interested in sending a message to the judge, who knew what a critical role Mr. Wilkins played in deciding who got to become or remain a judge in our state. Either way, Mr. Wilkins got a well-deserved political black eye for his bad judgment in accepting the gig.

What’s striking about the way GOP gubernatorial nominee Rep. Nikki Haley has made a living since joining the Legislature is how much it resembles the good-ol’-boy opportunism that she and Gov. Mark Sanford — and numerous Republican and some Democratic legislators before them — have so appropriately criticized.

We had already learned, after her Republican and Democratic opponents shamed her into releasing her income tax returns, that government contractor Wilbur Smith Associates paid Ms. Haley more than $40,000 in consulting fees to refer Lexington County water, sewer and infrastructure work to the firm because she had “good contacts.”

And on Sunday, The State’s John O’Connor outlined how Lexington Medical Center CEO Mike Biediger created a fund-raising job for Ms. Haley at the Lexington Medical Center Foundation — because of her “excellent contacts in the community” — and paid her far more than experienced fundraisers at charities of similar size. The job was created two years after Ms. Haley made a rare break with Mr. Sanford over his veto of a special law to allow her hometown hospital to provide open-heart surgery. Among the donors to the foundation were two payday lenders, whose business Ms. Haley had played a huge role in keeping alive as the head of a House subcommittee that ran the clock on anti-payday lending bills.

This sort of thing would be troubling — just as it was troubling when Mr. Lindsey and his ilk did it — even if Ms. Haley weren’t masquerading as the anti-establishment, clean up the way we do things candidate. Her hypocrisy merely makes a bad situation worse.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the line is that separates networking from logrolling. But the real good-government legislators, the ones who sincerely want to stop our lawmakers from putting their own personal financial interests ahead of the interests of the voters, don’t go anywhere near that line.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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