By RON AIKEN
Of course, since lawmakers wrote the laws, it’s entirely legal.
Influence is hard to measure – whether it’s a firm handshake, a look in the eye, or a few thousand at a legislator’s private business.
The question of whether spending thousands of dollars at a legislator’s business buys influence is hard or impossible to answer, and often the spending is perfectly legal. But knowing who is spending what and where is important to know.
In a comprehensive review of every legislator’s 2016 Statements of Economic Interest by The Nerve, several lawmakers profit significantly from government contracts and entities over which the elected official has committee power, beginning with Sen. Thomas Alexander (R-Oconee).
Alexander’s relatively small office supply store in Seneca does business with a host of entities that either have business with committees he serves on, or local municipal and county governments with which it’s in his interest to maintain good relationships. Between hospitals, Clemson University, Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative, and more he earned $76,369 last year alone and has earned $835,385 since 2010 from government contracts over whom he exercises authority.
Here are Alexander’s yearly totals from government contracts for Alexander’s Office Supply since 2010:
- $90,859 in 2015
- $94,137 in 2014
- $135,244 in 2013
- $175,014 in 2012
- $178,845 in 2011
- $161,286 in 2010
Alexander serves as the chairman of the powerful Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee; is a member of the powerful Finance Committee that helps craft the state budget; and serves on the Banking and Insurance, Medical Affairs and Invitations committees.
Entities that (a) chose Alexander’s business, and (b) have direct business before his committees, are these:
Labor, Commerce and Industry
- Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative ($8,676)
- First Data Solutions ($87)
Banking and Insurance
- Blue Ridge Bank ($5,313)
- Clemson University’s Sports Medicine Department ($4,796)
- Rosa Clark Medical ($529)
- Tribble Center ($4,644)
- Walhalla Medical Center ($248)
- Foothills Assisted Living (1,049)
- Walhalla Rescue Squad ($79)
Local governments in Alexander’s district also patronize the senator’s business generously: City of Walhalla ($4,355), City of Seneca ($11,965), Oconee County ($31,350), Oconee Soil and Water ($255), City of Westminster ($1,004), the Oconee Solicitor (Chrissy Adams) to whose campaign Alexander has contributed ($1,788), Town of Salem ($362) and the School District of Oconee County ($1,419).
Alexander also is a generous patron of his own business himself, having spent $35,657 since 2008, a review of Statements of Economic Interest by The Nerve shows.
Section 8-13-1348 of the SC Code of Laws bans campaign funds from being “converted to personal use” or used to “defray personal expenses which are unrelated to the campaign or the office if the candidate is an officeholder,” but the practice of using campaign money to fund the privately owned businesses of government officials is a common one in South Carolina.
As previously reported by The Nerve, Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens, employs a similar strategy. Hiott is the owner of a copy shop, a business other several elected officials have invested in with their own campaign funds.
And Alexander by no means is the only elected official profiting from government contracts in 2016. No one profited more handsomely than Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, who is the president of Bryant Pharmacy & Supply in Anderson. Just last year Bryant’s business made $2.9 milion in government contracts, all coming from two agencies: S.C. Medicaid and PEBA, the agency that handles state employees’ health insurance. Going back to 2014, Bryant’s pharmacy supply in Anderson has made $6.6 million from the two government agencies, both of which are located in Columbia.
Here are the following lawmakers The Nerve found claiming government contracts on their Statements of Economic Interest in 2016:
- Robert Hayes (R-York): $2,100 from the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs through the York County Board of Disabilities
- John Scott (D-Richland): $49,500 from the City of Columbia for consulting on the city and Richland County’s failed bid to secure $350 million in funding from the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank in 2015. Despite living in Columbia, Scott also is one of the lawmakers who claims all of his in-district ($12,000) and subsistence money ($11,817.89). Subsistence money is supposed to be used by lawmakers traveling from other parts of the state for meals and hotels, but as The Nerve previously reported, it is often abused by Midlands lawmakers.
In the House, several members also drew income from government contracts:
- Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown ($4,630 from the City of Kingstree)
- Jenny Horne, R-Charleston ($11,704 from the Department of Social Services and the Charleston County Aviation Authority)
- Deborah Long, R-Lancaster ($1,636.38 from Medicaid)
- Phillip Lowe, R-Florence ($1 from Medicaid)
Do contracts buy influence? There’s no way to know. And when nothing is illegal, there’s no reason for anyone with business before or potentially before the legislature not to seek out the pockets of those who could be a deciding vote or voice for their businesses. Because although influence is hard to measure, it is easy to count.
Reach Aiken at (803) 254-4411 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC. Research assistant Taylor Estes contributed to this story.