By PHILLIP CEASE
Want a top-salaried government job at a low-profile agency? Try working at the General Assembly first.
Nepotism is a well known part of South Carolina state government: Lawmakers routinely appoint their siblings and spouses and friends to university boards and various state commissions, for example. Less well known are the outsized salaries associated with some of those positions.
Before considering the salaries of lawmakers’ friends and relatives, though, take a look at the salaries of those in charge of core state agencies – law enforcement and the like. For agencies like South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) and the Department of Public Safety (DPS), directors make around $160,000 a year. Both of the state’s top cops have a long career in law enforcement and run large state agencies that serve essential government functions. Similarly, Brian Sterling, head of the Department of Corrections – the agency tasked with confining the state’s prison population – makes $161,137 a year.
Now, back to those friends of lawmakers. They tend to hold positions that, although high-level, could fairly be considered non-essential services.
Begin at the Retirement System Investment Commission (RSIC), a haven for former Senate employees. The RSIC’s current Chief Investment Officer, for example, Michael Hitchcock – formerly chief counsel and assistant clerk to the Senate – now makes $230,000 a year, not including benefits. The experience that qualified Mr. Hitchcock to run the state’s pension system – to quote Hitchcock himself – was that he could balance the Senate’s 46 “strong personalities.” He went on: “I’ve built a reputation as a person who can work between sides and help the Senate move past impasses.” Less clear was what this had to do with managing a multibillion-dollar investment portfolio. Wayne Bell, former president of the State Retirees Association, was even more direct about the strangeness of hiring a Senate staffer for such a position: “Bringing someone in from the outside who was perfectly capable didn’t work […] South Carolina politics just eats them alive.”
Or take former Senate staffer Danny Varat, now the RSIC’s spokesman. He makes $116,688 a year, not including benefits. Varat is the agency’s spokesman.
Around the time Mr. Varat was hired, his prior boss, former Senator Greg Ryberg, was hired as the commission’s director. Mr. Ryberg was hired without a search for more qualified candidates. Mr. Ryberg made $161,000 a year, not including benefits, while running the RSIC.
Now turn your attention to the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), where former legislator Anton Gunn works as the institution’s Chief Diversity Officer. Gunn earns $275,000 a year, not including benefits. The former House member is responsible for “strategic diversity initiatives.” On his personal website Gunn, also the founder and president of 937 Strategy Group, LLC, based in Washington DC, lists seven speaking engagements around the country in April of this year alone.
Or consider Paul Campbell, Chief Executive Officer of the Charleston County Aviation Authority. In 2013, the previous CEO left the agency because of legislative meddling in the airport affairs. “We need to get someone in there who is not susceptible to the politics,” remarked Rep. Jim Merrill and a member of the Charleston delegation that appoints six of the Aviation Authority’s 11 board members. The delegation responded by appointing a state senator – Paul Campbell.
Campbell earns $231,831 a year, plus benefits, though that does not include the over $29,000 he makes as a sitting state senator. Why the hefty salary for heading what would seem to be a mid- or low-level agency? Campbell’s legislative biography says he is a former business executive in the manufacturing industry but offers no hint of experience in running airports.
What makes Senator Campbell’s hiring at the airport even more striking is that the state constitution prohibits legislators from holding more than one state office. This provision specifically bans lawmakers from holding “any office or position of profit or trust.” A legislative friend of Campbell knew about this prohibition and requested an opinion from the Attorney General. Bizarrely, the A.G.’s office concluded that the position – which, again, comes with a $231,831 salary – “is not an office of ‘honor or profit.’”
Maybe it’s not an office of “honor.” But the “profit” part – as with other former legislators and legislative staffers working in non-core agencies – seems pretty definite.
Phillip Cease is Director of Research at the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve‘s parent organization.