Sen. Setzler: Lawyer to the Lobbyists?

June 26, 2013

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly

Sen. Nikki SetzlerThere’s no question that state Sen. Nikki Setzler is the proud father of four children.

There’s also little dispute that the Lexington County Democrat is one of South Carolina’s most influential lawmakers, having served in the Senate for more than 36 years and currently holding the title of Senate minority leader.

In recent years, his private and public roles have intersected, as his daughter, Amber Barnes, is the director of government relations and a paid lobbyist for the South Carolina Bankers Association (SCBA), a nonprofit trade organization that tracks various state legislation. Setzler listed his daughter’s position on his annual statements of economic interests filed with the State Ethics Commission from 2010 through 2012, though she isn’t listed on his most recent statement filed on April. 15.

An investigation by The Nerve found that Setzler this year voted for six new laws supported by the SCBA.

The Nerve also found that Setzler’s West Columbia law firm, Setzler & Scott, has represented three other lobbyists in legal matters since 2007, including two last year, collecting a total of nearly $26,000 in legal fees from them.

No one has accused the 67-year-old Setzler of breaking any ethics laws. But the state code has plenty of loopholes.

One law (Section 8-13-700 of the S.C. Code of Laws), for example, bans a state lawmaker or other public official from knowingly using his “official office, membership, or employment to obtain an economic interest for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated.”

Another law (Section 2-17-80) bans lawmakers and other state officials from soliciting or receiving money, campaign contributions, lodging, transportation, entertainment or “any other thing of value” from lobbyists.

But in a written response last week to The Nerve, Cathy Hazelwood, chief lawyer and deputy director at the State Ethics Commission, said a public official whose law firm represented lobbyists wouldn’t be breaking the law if the official “isn’t receiving anything” directly from those lobbyists.

And as for lobbyists seeking legal representation from public officials who are attorneys, Hazelwood said the law “provides that a lobbyist may not have a public official on retainer for availability,” though “actual representation is not prohibited.”

Under state law, the Ethics Commission has no authority to investigate or discipline state lawmakers for ethical violations. Instead, legislators police themselves through their respective House and Senate Ethics committees.

Setzler did not return three phone calls left for him last week by The Nerve. Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry and the Senate Ethics Committee chairman, did not respond to two phone messages last week from The Nerve seeking comment about Setzler’s case.

At The Nerve’s request last week, the South Carolina Bankers Association provided a list of bills supported by the organization. None of the six bills – five of which were signed into law this month by Gov. Nikki Haley and the other enacted in April – was authored or co-sponsored by Setzler, though two of them went through the Senate Finance Committee, of which he is a member.

Setzler also serves on the Senate Banking and Insurance; Education; Labor, Commerce and Industry; and Interstate Cooperation committees.

The enacted bills supported by the SCBA included tax incentives for “angel” investors (H. 3505) and rehabilitating abandoned buildings (H. 3093), criminal prosecution of identity theft (H. 3248), revisions to the state probate and trust code (S. 143), and revisions to Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) articles dealing with secured transactions and fund transfers (S. 323 and S. 221, respectively).

The six bills received mostly unanimous approval on second readings in both chambers, including Setzler’s affirmative votes, and have been signed into law, legislative records show. The incentives bills dealing with the rehabilitation of abandoned buildings and “angel” investors, who typically invest up to $100,000 in a company in the early stages of development, went through the Senate Finance Committee, of which Setzler is a member.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Setzler’s daughter, who noted she has been with the bankers association for four years, said she has never met with her father as a lobbyist to discuss issues that are a priority to her organization, or appeared before any of his committees on official matters.

“He doesn’t discuss any of that with me,” Barnes said, adding she deals primarily with federal issues in her job.

But another association lobbyist, Neil Rashley, an attorney and the group’s senior vice president for legislative and regulatory issues, has met with Setzler on various legislative matters and testified in committee this year on the UCC and probate code bills, Barnes said.

In addition to Rashley and Barnes, Fred Green, the association’s president and CEO, also is a registered lobbyist for the group. State Ethics Commission records show that Barnes received $28,656 in lobbyist income last year, while Green and Rashley reported receiving $45,000 and $59,769, respectively in lobbyist income for the year.

No salary information for Green, Rashley or Barnes was listed in the organization’s most recent federal tax return, which covered the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, though former president Lloyd Hendricks, who retired last year, was listed as receiving $452,011 in salary and other compensation.

Besides his daughter, Setzler also has ties, according to his state income-disclosure forms, to three other lobbyists:

  • Leslie Hope, who works for Charlotte-based Carolinas AGC, an organization that represents contractors and construction-related firms in North and South Carolina;
  • Clara Thomas Smith, executive director of Injured Workers’ Advocates, a nonprofit association of attorneys in Columbia that deals with the “rights of injured workers and their families,” according to its website: and
  • Joe Jones III, owner of the Columbia public relations firm Jones, McAden & Associates. Jones has lobbied for organizations representing engineers, architects and professional land surveyors.

Hope paid Setzler’s law firm $15,410 last year and $3,235 in 2011, while the firm received $1,320 from Smith last year and $5,988 from Jones in 2007, according to Setzler’s statements of economic interests.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Hope and Smith each said they retained Michelle Dickerson, a partner in Setzler’s firm, to represent them in their respective divorces, while Jones said firm partner Joseph Vasquez represented him in an estate matter.

Hope said she has met with Setzler in the past as a lobbyist to discuss issues of interest to her organization, noting, “He files a lot of bills my group actively is looking at or interested in.”

She said although she didn’t have a “formal, sit-down meeting” with Setzler during this year’s legislative session, he “did a lot of transportation issues, and I did a lot of thank you’s (messages to Setzler) for explaining things on the (Senate) floor.”

Smith said her organization “just never had anything to go before him (Setzler),” noting that “most of our stuff goes through (Senate) Judiciary,” which Setzler doesn’t serve on. But Smith acknowledged that her organization deals with workers’ compensation issues – a practice area in Setzler’s law firm, according to the firm’s website.

Jones said he has met with Setzler as a lobbyist, adding, “That’s my job; I don’t know how many times I met with him this session.”

State Ethics Commission records show that Jones last year represented the South Carolina Society of Professional Engineers, South Carolina Society of Professional Land Surveyors, American Institute of Architects-South Carolina, and the American Council of Engineering Companies of South Carolina.

Jones said he hired Vasquez as his attorney because he knew him through his church. Smith described Dickerson as a “long-time friend.”

All three three lobbyists said Setzler was not involved in any way in their legal cases, though Hope and Smith said they were aware that he had reported his law firm’s representation of them on his state income-disclosure forms.

“My attorney said Nikki has a tendency to over-report,” Smith said.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.