Ties to payday lending may be key in mayoral race

When Steve Morrison announced his candidacy for Columbia's mayor, the Nelson Mullins attorney said he did not represent payday lenders and had never done any work for them - aside from representing Advance America's CEO in an ongoing "personal matter."

But a 2008 e-mail from Advance America's corporate attorney Tom Newell indicates Morrison was paid in 2008 to represent the company's officers and board of directors in a federal Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.

Morrison declined to comment on the e-mail and would not say how much he was paid, but he made a distinction between representing a company and representing an individual who works for a company.

"I do not represent the company nor have I ever represented the company," he said. "I represent the CEO in a personal matter. Nor can I talk to you about any arrangements made."

But in a city concerned about the proliferation of payday lenders - so much so that council members are considering restricting where they can operate - any link to the industry could resonate with voters.

Tuesday, the political Web site fitsnews.com wrote Morrison has "some explaining to do" and noted it appears "not one, but two Columbia mayoral candidates, now have a 'payday problem.'"

The other candidate is Steve Benjamin, the first to announce his candidacy for mayor.

Benjamin serves on the board of directors for Advance America. In 2008, he earned $84,000 in that position, according to the company's corporate filings. He also owns 3,250 shares of company stock, which is worth $18,475.50, based on Tuesday's closing price.

Benjamin was one of the recipients of Newell's e-mail, but he declined to comment about Morrison's connection to Advance America.

"I have fiduciary obligations to the company and to the shareholders," Benjamin said. "It would not be appropriate for me to comment."

The e-mail referencing Morrison, sent from Newell to Advance America's directors and officers in December 2008, says in part, "You may retain your own private counsel should you so choose. However, Steve will serve as company-paid counsel to any individual board members and/or officers who desire representation."

Advance America spokesman Jamie Fulmer declined to comment about the e-mail.

Payday lending has been an issue in Columbia since a 2008 report by the city's Code Enforcement Task Force recommended City Council ban lenders from operating within a half-mile of each other.

The ordinance attracted industry lobbyists and neighborhood activists to a contentious public hearing at City Hall last month.

The issue is so heated, City Councilman Kirkman Finlay, who also is running for mayor, says he will not accept campaign contributions from the payday lending industry.

But voters will have to decide whether Benjamin's and Morrison's payday connections mean they shouldn't lead South Carolina's capital city.

The Rev. Wiley Cooper, chairman of the code enforcement task force, said the payday lending issue is the reason why he doesn't support Benjamin for mayor.

"Steve Benjamin's relationship with the payday lending industry is very close and very direct and involves a considerable amount of direct income, and that concerns me greatly," he said. "(Morrison's relationship) is a relationship between a lawyer and a client and does not involve public defense of the industry."

Debbie McDaniel, owner of Revente in Five Points who has hosted several fundraisers for Benjamin, said she had to look past his payday connections.

"I'm very much against payday lending. It was hard for me at the beginning to reconcile that with supporting Steve (Benjamin)," she said. "The more I sat down with him and listened to him, his other issues far outweigh that one thing. I just feel like he is our best candidate for what we need in this city."

Catherine Bruce, a doctoral student who said she hasn't decided whom to support but is "leaning toward Benjamin," said the candidate's connections to the payday lending industry does not bother her.

"My bigger concern is how the public dollars are being handled and shared and dealt with than what happens in private enterprise," she said. "All of the people, rich or poor, have their money in the public system. People elect to get involved in the private system."