Scoppe: The problem with Sheheen

Associate EditorOctober 22, 2010 

I GOT A CALL last week from a Republican friend who shares many of my concerns about the way government in our state works. I don’t take issue with anything you’ve written about Nikki Haley, he said, but you really need to write about this mess with Vincent Sheheen’s income.

“What mess?” I asked, hoping he had seen something I missed. Nothing that rises to the level of not filing your tax return until eight months after your extension had expired. Twice. But something that clearly needed criticizing.

Obviously, I’m not a closet Haley fan. But I have grown increasingly uncomfortable as more and more things emerged about Ms. Haley that demanded critique — and nothing even remotely close came out about Mr. Sheheen. I’ve never experienced anything like it in the 12 years I’ve been an editorial writer.

I supported David Beasley’s re-election bid, but I also wrote a few critical pieces. I even more enthusiastically supported Mark Sanford’s first campaign, writing glowing endorsements and numerous columns supporting him and criticizing then-Gov. Jim Hodges, but I also took issue with some things he did. (Four years ago, I had problems with both candidates.)

Unfortunately, my friend didn’t have anything new. Just a difference of opinion. He honestly believes it’s a scandal that state senators represent clients before the Workers Compensation Commission, since commissioners have to be confirmed by the Senate. I’d prefer to live in a world where they didn’t, but it never has made, oh, my Top 100 list of things wrong with the Legislature. The governor appoints the commissioners, subject to confirmation by the Senate, and a 1991 law effectively prohibits senators who practice before the commission from voting on confirmation.

(It’s true, as my friend suggested, that the money Mr. Sheheen’s law firm made from workers comp cases increased after he was elected to the Senate — from $70,000 in 2003 to $119,000 in 2004. Then it dropped to $105,000, before climbing to $172,000, then $178,000 — and dropping back to $98,000 last year. The law firm says other lawyers handle more cases than Mr. Sheheen and workers comp represented 4.7 percent of its income last year.)

When I combine my longtime ambivalence about this subject with the fact that Ms. Haley got paid by a state contractor for work neither of them has fully explained and then took a job her local hospital created especially for her after she sided with it in an important, ongoing legislative fight, I find it hard to get excited.

I land in a similar place every time something comes up about Mr. Sheheen that actually does trouble me:

•  Ms. Haley was right to criticize Mr. Sheheen for not voting to close a legislative slush fund. Alas, she could barely get her ad on the air before The Associated Press reported that she had been lined up at the trough with everybody else right up until Gov. Mark Sanford got wise to this; she and Mr. Sheheen even co-signed one request.

•  I wish Mr. Sheheen had raised an alarm immediately when he heard, as a member of the legislative panel that screens Employment Security commissioners, that the unemployment insurance trust fund was going broke. But I wonder how much good a news conference would have done since top budget writers already had decided to ignore it and Mr. Sheheen was a member of the minority party. And the same day Ms. Haley brought this up, a commissioner charged that she had used her influence to get the agency to delay an audit of her family business (a claim she denied).

•  Last week, Mr. Sheheen charged in a speech that Ms. Haley “flat-out broke the law” by not including the $42,000 consulting fee she received from Wilbur Smith Associates on her ethics reports. That’s flat-out untrue, and it marked the second time I’ve seen Mr. Sheheen make clearly untrue accusations about Ms. Haley; I did take him to task the first time, when his campaign sent out news releases quoting him as saying (incorrectly) that Ms. Haley had not paid her taxes. I’ve lost count of the times Ms. Haley has said things that were untrue about herself and Mr. Sheheen, most of which I’ve ignored. Mr. Sheheen’s false charge came the same day the Republican Party charged incorrectly that he had broken the law, by not reporting income the law didn’t require him to report.

•  Mr. Sheheen took minor liberties when he said during Tuesday’s debate that Ms. Haley’s hospital job required her to work only 10 hours a week, that she didn’t and that she hired a lawyer to muscle a $35,000 severance package and a privacy clause that prohibited the hospital from saying anything bad about her. Actually the job required her to show up in the office just 10 hours a week. But goodness, how do you make a big deal about that little stretch when Ms. Haley replied with the blanket denial that he “just made that up,” leaving the impression that there was no basis to any of the charges, which have been documented in public e-mails the hospital was forced to release to The Associated Press?

In each case, there’s not more than a paragraph or two to say about Mr. Sheheen, and there’s always something at least as troubling about Ms. Haley, which makes it hard to write without seeming as though I’m just looking for an excuse to criticize her.

What’s so distressing about this campaign is that nobody needs to go looking for things to criticize her about. What we need are fewer things that demand criticism.

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

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