Law provides loophole for South Carolina legislators to be paid for ‘consulting’ work

COLUMBIA — When they were in office, few knew that Reps. Jim Harrison and Tracy Edge, both in House leadership posts, were working for Richard Quinn, one of South Carolina’s most influential political and business consultants.

Between them, Edge and Harrison earned a reported $1.2 million from their secret consulting work with Quinn.

They could keep the payments under wraps because until this year lawmakers didn’t have to disclose that kind of consulting work on ethics reports. But even after last year’s income disclosure law required public officials to start reporting all sources of income — public and private — much can remain hidden. Legislators say current filings still wouldn’t catch such an arrangement.

“I don’t know of anybody else and probably wouldn’t know,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield.

“No one knows the depth of the problem,” added Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken.

While the law bars legislators from lobbying while in office, it says nothing about consulting, leaving the definition open to exploitation.

In presenting conspiracy charges against Harrison, Edge and Quinn last week, 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, who is leading the Statehouse probe, said GOP strategist directly paid lawmakers to influence legislation benefiting his clients, which included some of the state’s largest firms and public agencies. Quinn’s son, Rep. Rick Quinn of Lexington, and Sen. John Courson of Columbia, a longtime Quinn client, also have been charged with conspiracy. All five say they are innocent.

Lawmakers could choose what to disclose beyond the meager requirements. Harrison, longtime chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, listed dozens of his legal clients on ethics reports, even those paying him several hundred dollars, while not revealing the $900,000 he earned over 12 years from Quinn that stopped when Columbia Republican left office in 2012. Edge allegedly received nearly $300,000 over a decade from Quinn until he lost his re-election bid in 2014, Pascoe told the court.

Still unclear is what Harrison and Edge did for the money. Harrison has said he worked on salary to help run statewide political campaigns, while Edge has said he was a consultant, without specifying his role. 

Being able to discern potential conflicts is why government watchdog groups fought for years for legislation forcing lawmakers to reveal who’s paying them.

Disclosure forms should enable the public to at least question whether “someone is being motivated out of self-interest,” said former Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens.

But “consulting” can get into a very murky area, and listing a business doesn’t reveal the clients behind it, he said.   

“Consulting involves a variety of stuff that’s just a catch-all word, I believe, to get you on the payroll,” said Martin, a textile company executive who lost his 2016 re-election bid after 38 years in the Legislature. “I don’t know how members of the Legislature can ‘consult’ without providing their inside knowledge and abilities in a way somebody else can’t.”

Then-Gov. Nikki Haley insinuated in 2012 that such work is widespread.

Haley warned in successfully defending accusations involving her jobs while a legislator that her colleagues would open a “Pandora’s Box” if they didn’t clear her. A GOP activist accused her of lobbying for an engineering firm and a hospital and not disclosing the jobs. The work became public during her 2010 campaign for governor, when she let reporters view her income tax returns.

“Indeed, Gov. Haley’s business activities and conduct are commonplace in the Legislature and were always consistent with the law,” wrote her then-attorney, Swati Patel. To find otherwise, she said, would “impugn the integrity” of many other legislators and businesses. 

The courts refused to consider the allegations. Her colleagues on the House Ethics Committee cleared her — twice.

After her colleagues ultimately determined the laws are too gray, Haley demanded ethics reform to clearly define what legislators can and can’t do. The years-long push resulted in last year’s law.

But it didn’t go nearly far enough, said Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, part of a watchdog group whose complaints led to the Statehouse corruption probe.

She contends legislators should have to report “every dollar they derive” from any company that employs lobbyists and any government agency, to also catch “government contracts being funneled through a variety of channels.”

The 2016 law “changed nothing essentially,” Landess said.

John Crangle, longtime director of Common Cause, is hopeful the investigation will re-ignite a debate on more transparency. 

Whether legislators are willing could depend on the outcome of the Statehouse probe.

“I think additional ethics reforms will go into place once everyone in the General Assembly understands what was going on that resulted in these criminal charges,” said Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville.

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