State House for sale

State House for Sale: Lawmakers, lobbyists circle 'revolving door'

sfretwell@thestate.comMay 18, 2013 

  • About this series The first in a continuing series in The State on ethics at the S.C. State House. Today: The revolving door

    Have an issue you want addressed at the State House? Hire a lobbyist. Better yet, some insiders say, hire a former legislator to lobby.

    • A half-dozen former legislators are lobbying the Legislature this year over a garbage-handling bill that could shape the future of that roughly $500 million-a-year S.C. business. Two companies pushing for the legislation have spent $1.5 million to lobby the Legislature since 2009.

    • At least 66 State House lobbyists are former legislators, legislative staffers or state regulators.

    • Ex-legislators now can lobby their former colleagues one year after they leave office. Concerned about the influence that ex-legislators and their moneyed clients have, a state Senate committee voted earlier this month to increase that “cooling-off” period to eight years.

    Inside: A special Opinion package. Cindi Scoppe grades the House and Senate Judiciary ethics proposals. Page D2

Two of the highest-ranking members of the S.C. Legislature during the past decade are easy to spot at the State House this spring, shaking hands and smiling from the lobby of the grand old building.

But Tommy Moore and Dan Cooper no longer represent the public. They are lobbyists hired by the country’s largest garbage companies to influence their former colleagues and win passage of a garbage bill, now stuck in the state Senate.

Less than two years after quitting the Legislature, both Moore, the 2006 Democratic candidate for governor, and Cooper, the former Republican head of the powerful House budget committee, walked through the State House’s revolving door as lobbyists.

They are not alone.

At least 66 former lawmakers, legislative staffers and state regulators have registered to lobby the Legislature in the past two years, according to research by The State newspaper. Among them is former S.C. House Speaker Pro Tempore Harry Cato, hired to help defeat the garbage bill that Moore and Cooper are trying to get passed for the waste giants.

Lobbying by ex-legislators is legal in South Carolina, and former legislators are hot lobbyists because of the connections they developed while in office.

But as the Legislature debates ethics reform, some government watchdogs and lawmakers say tougher rules are needed to govern legislators-turned-lobbyists, who critics say can exert too much influence on the lawmaking process.

Earlier this month, state senators voted 18-0 to require that legislators and some high-ranking state officials spend eight years out of office before they return to the State House to lobby their former colleagues. That would make South Carolina’s restrictions on lawmaker-lobbyists the toughest in the country. The waiting period now is a year.

“We need to stop the revolving door of elected officials, from the governor down to the legislators,’’ said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat who will run again for governor in 2014. “What I’ve seen is elected officials often retire, then they go to work very quickly for large economic interests. Then, they have the ability to quickly influence the outcome of decisions in state government.’’

Cooper, who less than two years ago was a legislator, downplays the role he has played in helping push the garbage legislation. Since registering Jan. 3 as a waste industry lobbyist, Cooper said he has spoken personally to only one member of the Senate about the bill, now hung up in the upper chamber.

That senator says he does not recall the conversation.

Cooper said his reasoning for becoming a lobbyist was simple: To support his family.

“We wouldn’t want anybody to make any money or try to make a living, would we?’’ Cooper responded wryly, when asked about his entry into the world of lobbying. “I starved for 21 years as a legislator,’’ a part-time job that pays about $10,000 a year.

S.C.’s garbage war

Moore and Cooper’s lobbying efforts for the waste industry center on a bill that could determine who controls the state’s garbage service: local governments or national trash corporations, such as Waste Management and Republic Services.

The proposal, which the trash companies back, would limit a county’s control over local garbage service. County laws that now require local trash to be dumped in local landfills would be nullified.

Garbage companies say they want a chance to compete for South Carolina’s estimated $500 million-a-year trash market.

But local governments say the bill would result in a takeover of the state’s garbage market by private companies, leading, they predict, to higher rates for consumers and the flow of more out-of-state garbage into South Carolina, a state with a history of taking the nation’s refuse.

Moore, a state senator for nearly three decades, represents the National Solid Wastes Management Association, a trade group. Cooper represents Republic Services, one of the nation’s largest garbage corporations with revenues exceeding $8 billion a year.

The waste-industry backed bill sailed through the House on Jan. 30 by a 89-23 vote, about a month after Cooper registered to lobby for Republic.

Waste industry representatives – including former Sen. Moore, who registered as a garbage industry lobbyist April 24 – now are trying to broker a deal to have the garbage bill placed higher on the Senate’s calendar so a vote can be taken before the legislative session ends in early June.

‘You know who has horsepower’

Government watchdogs say it is no surprise when ex-lawmakers-turned-lobbyists score victories in state legislatures.

“A former committee chairman who is almost freshly out of the Legislature is going to be a huge asset to whoever hires him or her,’’ said Viveca Novak, a spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, which studies campaign finance and lobbying. “That’s not only for having intimate knowledge of how the system works, but also still knowing most of the players up there.’’

Ethics reform advocate John Crangle said the most effective lobbying efforts come from big companies that liberally spread campaign contributions among lawmakers and also hire influential ex-legislators to lobby.

“If you served in the Legislature, you know who has horsepower in the House and in the Senate, and you are going to have some kind of personal relationship with those people,’’ said Crangle, director of the government watchdog group S.C. Common Cause. “You may even be friends with them.’’

A major concern among watchdog groups is the belief that legislators-turned-lobbyists help advance bills that work against the public good. In many cases, that legislation is focused on helping corporate interests at the public’s expense, according to national and state groups that track campaign finance and ethics issues.

‘Everybody knows’

Under current law, an ex-legislator can begin lobbying his former colleagues one year after leaving elected office. The one-year waiting period is intended to prevent legislators from taking advantage of their still-fresh legislative relationships on behalf of a client.

But some lawmakers say that isn’t long enough

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted May 9 to increase to eight years the waiting period. If the eight-year wait was in effect, neither Cooper nor Moore could lobby this year.

State Sen. Chip Campsen, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said only having a one-year waiting period encourages people to run for the Legislature and angle for a lobbying job while in office. The Charleston Republican said he has no first-hand knowledge of that happening but better safeguards are needed.

“You need to have enough separation so the office doesn’t merely become a stepping stone to realize your ultimate goal of becoming a lobbyist,’’ he said. “I don’t think we need to make the wait eight years, but I don’t think it should be just one year, either.”

The state’s current one-year waiting period doesn’t stop ex-legislators from being hired by lobbying firms immediately after they leave office.

During their one-year wait to register as lobbyists, the former lawmakers often are “consultants,’’ helping with legislative strategy, advising lobbyists and even visiting the State House to provide support to lobbyists.

“One year is essentially a way to not have a waiting period,’’ Sheheen said. “They can maintain their contacts and go ahead to work. They actually don’t lobby. Everybody knows they are working for this entity or company.’’

Legislator-lobbyists aplenty

In South Carolina, the trash bill pushed by Moore and Cooper has been a point of testy debate over whether giant waste corporations can gain a bigger piece of the state’s garbage market, which they now share with counties.

More than a dozen counties, including Richland and Lexington, have passed resolutions opposing the garbage bill. And they’ve hired their own army of lobbyists. But ex-legislators lobbying for the garbage industry outnumber their former legislative counterparts who are lobbying for the counties.

Moore, an Aiken County Democrat, and Cooper, an Anderson County Republican, are among 15 lobbyists representing the waste industry in Columbia this year.

About a third of those lobbyists are ex-legislators including:

• Ex-state Rep. Will McCain, an Orangeburg Republican, who also was chief of staff to Republican Gov. David Beasley. McCain reported receiving $36,560 in income from trash giant Waste Management from 2009-2012 to lobby on a number of issues, including this year’s garbage bill.

Ex-state Rep. Mark Kelley, a Horry County Republican and McCain’s partner. He reported receiving $37,520 in lobbying income from Waste Management from 2009-2012. Kelley declined to comment.

• Former House Ways and Means Committee chairman Billy Boan, a Lancaster Democrat-turned-Republican who also was chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges. Boan reported receiving $49,507 in lobbying income from MRR Southern, a Raleigh company that wants to open a mega-landfill in Marlboro County, from 2009-2012. Boan said he isn’t as active as others in lobbying for the waste bill.

In addition to ex-legislators, the garbage bill also has the support of Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, whose brother and former Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler works for Waste Management. Bob Peeler is not a lobbyist, but county officials say he has talked with them about the bill. Harvey Peeler says he has not discussed the legislation with his brother.

‘Prior working relationships’

Since registering as a lobbyist for the National Solid Wastes Management Association last month, Moore has been a fixture in the State House. He has spent much of his time camped outside the Senate’s door, waiting for lawmakers to enter and leave the upper chamber.

He also has been involved in private meetings with senators and other lobbyists, lawmakers confirmed. One included a session two weeks ago with state Sens. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, and Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence – both of whom have influence to move the bill ahead.

Cromer is chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which can help put the waste bill on a priority list for a vote in the Senate.

Leatherman is the Senate Finance Committee chairman and one of the most influential members of the Legislature.

Cromer said he didn’t feel unduly pressured by Moore. But, he added, ex-legislators who become lobbyists have advantages. “You already know them and have prior working relationships with them and know their personalities,’’ Cromer said.

State House insiders say the waste industry’s decision to hire the affable Moore was a smart move.

Moore, who served 26 years in the Senate until resigning in July 2007, has special expertise in the politics of garbage, having chaired a state committee on solid-waste laws in the late 1980s. That committee worked with the industry to craft landmark legislation in 1991 that helped reduce the number of outdated, environmentally unsafe landfills in South Carolina.

Moore, who first registered to lobby in 2009, said he doesn’t think his past service in the Senate will win any favors with current legislators. He said he is just trying to broker a compromise on a bill that has produced bitter feelings between the waste industry and the S.C. Association of Counties, which represents counties at the Legislature.

“I’ll certainly work hard for that end,’’ he said. “As always on a controversial bill, and I’ve been involved in a few of them, there is always some effort to find some middle ground. If everybody will understand nobody gets everything they want, and look at what’s in the best interest of all South Carolinians, that’s a starting point.’’

‘Experience and knowledge’

Cooper’s ties to the Legislature are more recent.

He announced in April 2011 he was quitting the House. In August 2011, Cooper joined the Parker Poe law firm’s Columbia lobbying division, which represents Arizona-headquartered Republic Services.

A Parker Poe news release at the time touted Cooper’s ability to “help guide clients through the legislative process.’’

“I look forward to putting my experience and knowledge about the legislative process, in general, and the appropriations process, in particular, to work in assisting businesses and organizations with their dealings with the General Assembly and our state agencies,” Cooper said in the Aug. 1, 2011, news release.

Cooper’s departure from the Legislature followed his rise from a back-bench lawmaker in 1991 to the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee by 2005. That committee, which writes the state budget, is in position to make fellow legislators happy by approving money for programs that benefit their districts and constituents.

Cooper’s job as House budget committee chairman also meant he held a seat on the State Budget and Control Board, a five-member panel that also includes the governor and the Senate Finance Committee chairman. The Budget and Control board has broad authority over state agencies, overseeing the state’s budget office, its personnel department and a wide variety of programs.

Since registering as a lobbyist for Republic in January, Cooper regularly has attended legislative committee meetings about the waste bill. In early April, he was at an unannounced Lexington County Senate delegation meeting in which lobbyists on both sides of the garbage debate tried to win over Lexington legislators.

Cooper, who has other lobbying clients as well, says he has spoken personally to only one legislator – Senate Finance Committee chairman Leatherman – about the garbage bill. Leatherman was on the Budget and Control board with Cooper.

“I’m registered for Republic, but I really haven’t been that active,’’ Cooper said.

Leatherman said he doesn’t remember talking with Cooper. “Lots of people talk to me on lots of subjects,’’ he said.

Crangle said any talk between Cooper and Leatherman could go a long way toward helping Republic get what it wants. Leatherman is one of the state’s most senior and influential senators. Influential lawmakers can make a difference in persuading fellow legislators to vote for or against a bill, Crangle said.

“If I could talk to one senator about an issue like garbage-dump control, it would be Hugh Leatherman,’’ Crangle said. “I would not talk to a back bencher. He’s a ‘go-to’ guy on a lot of things.’’

Trash money

Waste bill supporters point out that those opposing their legislation are lobbying the issue aggressively, too.

One of those fighting against the waste bill is former-state Rep. Cato, a Greenville Republican who represents the Three Rivers Solid Waste Authority, near Aiken. That public authority says it opposes the waste industry’s proposal because it threatens its ability to sell bonds that may be needed, in the future, to expand or upgrade its nine-county landfill.

Former state regulators Wayne Beam and Art Braswell also are lobbying against the bill, representing the Horry County Solid Waste Authority, which is fighting to preserve its right to require that all garbage produced in that county go to a county-owned landfill. Unless it can depend on revenue from that garbage, the authority says its existence is threatened.

The waste industry, however, heavily outspends its opponents, records show.

In the four years ending in 2012, Waste Management and Republic spent about $1.5 million lobbying the Legislature, according to state Ethics Commission data analyzed by The State newspaper.

The primary opponents on the waste bill – the Association of Counties, the Conservation Voters of South Carolina and the Horry County Solid Waste Authority – have spent about $680,000 lobbying during the same four-year period, according to state Ethics Commission records.

Lobbying firms didn’t disclose how much their employees are paid, but records show that lobbyists can receive substantial revenue for their work in the Legislature.

Boan reported receiving more than $800,000 the past four years as a lobbyist from companies and groups that he represents. He said much of that has gone to his employer, McGuire Woods Consulting, which then pays him a salary.

Meredeth McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center, a non-profit group that examines government ethics issues, said the influence of ex-legislators who become lobbyists can be pronounced in states like South Carolina, where lawmakers are part time and most do not have research staffers to truth-squad proposed laws. As a result, legislators rely heavily on information from lobbyists, she said, adding whoever has the best lobbyists, often has the most influence.

Republic Services, headquartered in Phoenix, did not return telephone calls or messages to discuss its S.C. lobbying efforts.

Officials with the National Solid Wastes Management Association referred questions to Waste Management executive Randall Essick, who is active in the association.

Essick, Waste Management’s director of business development for the Carolinas and Georgia, said his company hired Kelley and McCain’s firm after receiving a favorable recommendation. Essick added the McCain-Kelley firm was hired about five years ago, long before this year’s waste bill was introduced.

“They’re a good lobbying firm,” Essick said. “I like their work, and they’re responsive to my requests.”

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