IMAGINE THAT political consultant Richard Quinn never lobbied the Legislature or did anything else illegal — as the law believes, since the charges against him were dropped. What we learned about his business in and around the Legislature still highlights a scandal as big as the corruption his critics say he nurtured. Yet this scandal has received woefully little attention and less concern.
According to documents our reporters reviewed and information that Solicitor David Pascoe made public from the criminal investigation into Mr. Quinn’s business, the Columbia political consultant was paid $950,000 from 2010 to 2015 by Palmetto Health, $694,000 by the Ports Authority, $515,000 by USC, $497,000 by AT&T and $414,000 by SCANA.
If that doesn’t strike you as scandalous, you’ve become too cynical.
I’m not suggesting that any of these entities did anything illegal. I’m not even suggesting that Mr. Quinn illegally lobbied for them, as he was charged but never tried for doing. I’m willing to accept their arguments that he was hired to handle advertising and public relations work.
But the first three are governmental entities, and the other two are regulated monopolies, which function very nearly like state agencies, in that we have no choice but to purchase their services, at the price they demand.
And when “public relations work” is purchased by entities that rely on the good graces of the Legislature and state regulators, you can bet that it means directly or indirectly convincing the Legislature and regulators to make decisions to their benefit.
Palmetto Health officials have been tight-lipped about what Mr. Quinn did for them. But he has said the Ports Authority paid him to conduct public opinion polls and write, produce and place TV and radio ads — while the authority was trying to convince the Legislature to help pay for the half-billion-dollar Charleston Harbor deepening project. Which the Legislature did, setting aside more than $300 million toward the effort. In addition to paying Mr. Quinn $694,000, the Ports Authority spent $432,000 directly lobbying legislators.
Meantime, USC paid Mr. Quinn to create strategies, themes and messages to help with its efforts to expand its medical school into Greenville, reduce state regulations and construct a new law school building. In addition to paying Mr. Quinn $515,000, USC spent $480,000 directly lobbying the Legislature.
All of which raises the question: Why should government entities and regulated monopolies be allowed to spend any money trying to influence the Legislature?
Consider a comparison from the private sector: The State is one of 29 newspapers owned by the McClatchy Co. Imagine that the editors here decided we needed to buy a private jet to fly our sports reporters to out-of-town Gamecock football games. And instead of just making that argument themselves, they hired a prominent public relations company to launch a six- or seven-figure campaign to convince McClatchy executives to let us make the purchase.
What do you think would happen?
I’m thinking the editors would be fired for misspending corporate funds. At the least, it would be made clear that they would not spend the corporation’s money that way ever again.
Yet the Legislature allows state agencies to spend public money to hire political consulting companies and private lobbyists, and to keep people on their payrolls whose job is to lobby the Legislature. They sometimes deal with other issues, but the primary job of all of these lobbyists and consultants is to extract more public money from the Legislature.
And not just USC and the Ports Authority. In 2017, 50 governmental entities reported spending $2 million lobbying the Legislature. Of course, many of those were cities and counties, which I think should have more leeway than state entities to lobby the Legislature. Still, reports filed with the State Ethics Commission show that 29 state agencies, colleges and school districts spent $1.2 million last year, mostly to pay in-house and contract lobbyists.
Depending on how you look at it, either Clemson or the Medical University of South Carolina led the list. Clemson spent $200,000. MUSC spent $87,000, but University Medical Associates, the physicians group affiliated with MUSC, spent another $194,000. USC, at $117,000, and Santee Cooper, at $101,000, round out the top five, and far eclipse other state agencies.
I’m not sure the list includes all the state agencies that have a nearly permanent presence in the lobby and in committee meeting rooms when the Legislature is in session.
And it certainly does not include money paid to other public relations and advertising professionals or “consultants,” who draft legislation and talking points and all the background materials that lobbyists then use to make their points at the State House. None of that even has to be reported, which is one of the biggest loopholes in the state ethics act — and one legislators have repeatedly refused to plug, even though it is arguably what allowed Mr. Quinn to conceal the extent of his influence over legislative matters.
This brings us to our fun trivia fact: One of the most ardent critics of state-agency lobbying, back when people used to criticize that sort of thing, was Rep. Jim Merrill — the now-convicted former House member whom Mr. Pascoe told the court had been instrumental in bringing charges against Mr. Quinn and his son, former Rep. Rick Quinn.
Mr. Merrill was wrong about a lot of things when he was a legislator. But this was one case where he was clearly right. Someone needs to take up the cause.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.