Warren Bolton

January 17, 2010

Bolton: The baggage of payday lending

I DON'T know whether candidates' connections with payday lenders will decide Columbia's mayoral race, but any with ties to the legalized loan sharks must give an account of themselves.

I DON'T know whether candidates' connections with payday lenders will decide Columbia's mayoral race, but any with ties to the legalized loan sharks must give an account of themselves.

Payday lending is a scourge that sucks money out of communities while snaring people in a cycle of debt. These businesses don't uplift communities; they bring them - and residents - down. The industry is as much a nuisance as video poker was, and similarly tries to stretch the law, tie matters up in court and influence politicians to get a favorable regulatory environment.

Candidates for office should steer clear of them. Of course, it's a bit late for Steve Benjamin and Steve Morrison, who find themselves having to defend or explain their connections with the nation's largest payday lender, Spartanburg-based Advance America.

Anyone seeking public office should anticipate being called on to explain their alliances and at least some of their business dealings, especially if they involve such a highly controversial industry as payday lending.

City Council's debate over a proposal to limit where payday lenders can locate heated up around the same time that candidates began announcing their intentions. Not surprisingly, things escalated a bit when Mr. Benjamin, a member of Advance America's board, entered the mayor's race. Another log was placed on the fire with recent revelations about candidate Mr. Morrison's connection to Advance America.

So payday lending could play a part in this contest, which also includes Councilman Kirkman Finlay and five others. Many people are concerned about even the slightest connection with the lenders. Can a candidate who works for or benefits from the industry be trusted when it comes to payday lending matters? And how will someone who helps perpetuate this predatory practice govern?

Should a relationship with payday lending automatically disqualify candidates? No. But it does present a significant hurdle for them to overcome as they make their pitches to voters. It may well be that their positions, vision and goals for the city - and the good they can do - outweigh the taint of payday lending.

While it's troubling that Mr. Morrison can't - or won't - give details about his connection to Advance America, his ties don't appear to me to be equal to those of Mr. Benjamin.

Mr. Benjamin's cozy relationship with the industry is without debate. In addition to collecting a tidy sum as a member of Advance America's board, he's lobbied for the industry in the past.

Mr. Benjamin has said if he's elected he would recuse himself on payday lending matters. He also said that, given the state's efforts to rein in the industry, he doesn't think it's appropriate for the city to use its zoning authority for further regulation.

For his part, Mr. Morrison said that he would have to determine what issues it would be proper for him to vote on, but given the opportunity, he would vote in favor of the proposed ordinance.

While there are some who question just how deep a relationship Mr. Morrison has with Advance America, he's not the company's "lead attorney" - one who would face down state attorneys general to further or preserve the industry - as some have claimed.

Mr. Morrison said he represents Advance America's CEO Ken Compton in what Mr. Morrison will only characterize as a "personal matter." He says that Mr. Compton is the only one within the company he represents. While Mr. Morrison won't discuss specifics, citing attorney-client privilege, it's no secret that Mr. Compton has been facing some troubles with the Securities Exchange Commission. Advance America revealed in July that Mr. Compton was the subject of an SEC investigation involving possible insider trading.

When I pressed for further clarification about his relationship with Advance America, past or present, Mr. Morrison said: "No, I never represented Advance America .... I'm not a spokesperson for Advance America or the payday lending industry. I'm an advocate for Mr. Compton."

Based on what I know, I don't see Mr. Morrison any differently than I would Mr. Compton's plumber or physician. It's a stretch to claim someone's in bed with payday lending because he provides a professional service to someone who works in industry.

Still, any relationship with payday lenders could prove to be a liability in this election.

It would behoove Mr. Morrison to find a way to openly explain his relationship. Critics and opponents are sure to exploit the absence of clear, direct answers. Mr. Morrison knows that, but insists he must maintain confidentiality.

Mr. Morrison, who won't say how much he's being paid or exactly who's paying him, maintains that his relationship is only with Mr. Compton despite an e-mail from Advance America's corporate attorney Tom Newell indicating the attorney was paid in 2008 to represent the company's officers and board of directors in a federal Securities and Exchange Commission investigation. The e-mail, sent from Newell to Advance America's directors and officers in December 2008, says in part, "Steve will serve as company-paid counsel to any individual board members and/or officers who desire representation."

As I talked with Mr. Benjamin about his alliances and loyalties, he stopped me to outline his priorities: His God, his family - and leading the city of Columbia. Outside of the top two, being mayor of Columbia "would come second to nothing else," he said.

I believe Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Morrison genuinely want to lead the city; both possess laudable attributes. But they've got to deal with their baggage of payday lending - real or perceived.

They could help their causes by ending the alliances. Mr. Benjamin said he's contemplated severing ties with Advance America. Mr. Morrison said he can't abandon a client. "I have a duty of loyalty to a client," he said. "I'm in the middle of a case."

And a race to be mayor.

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