By Phil Noble
Co-Founder of EnvisionSC
Over the last few weeks, the two interrelated scandals of the ever-expanding statehouse corruption probe and the nuclear debacle have dominated the news media of our state.
It has long been clear that these are not isolated incidents but the most visible manifestations or symptoms of the disease of corruption that has been infecting our state for a long, long time.
This disease of corruption is bipartisan, contagious, and spreading.
This disease emanates from the statehouse, as it is the epicenter of the greatest concentration of power and money in our state. The 19th century British politician Lord Acton said it best: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
He is right – and there is no better example than in the statehouse in Columbia today.
It would be tempting to try and make this a partisan scandal, but that would be wrong; it’s not. I am a Democrat and most of those indicted in the statehouse scandal thus far have been Republicans. But their corruption is not a manifestation of their party but of the fact that their party has been in near absolute control of state government for the last 20 years.
In the past, when Democrats were in absolute control, they were surely just as corrupt. The difference is that back then, there were effectively no ethics or public disclosure laws, the media was more docile, and the corrupt dealings took place behind closed doors away from public view.
Then, as now, corruption was accepted as ‘just the way it is’ – politics as usual.
The Republicans and Democrats are both to blame for the current nuclear scandal and I fully expect that there will be some Democrats indicted in the statehouse probe. But the simple reality is that most Democrats have very little power; thus, there is less need to involve them in the corrupt deals.
As one lobbyist explained to me, “The Republican leadership gets one third of the money, rank and file Republican members get one third, and Democrats get one third, just to keep them quiet.”
This corruption is a bipartisan disease.
Let’s define corruption. Dictionary.com defines corruption as:
1) the act of corrupting
or state of being corrupt,
2) moral perversion, depravity,
3) perversion of integrity,
4) corrupt or dishonest proceedings.
Notice that none of these definitions define corruption in legal terms – something can be corrupt but not necessarily illegal. This is often the case in South Carolina as our so-called ethics laws are so weak as to be laughable.
Now the nuclear scandal. SCANA (the parent company of SC Electric & Gas) and Santee Cooper and the co-ops got special legislation passed in 2007 to enable them to shift the up-front cost of building two nuclear facilities to the consumers and guarantee SCANA a 10.25 percent profit – even if the project failed. Now that they have pulled the plug on the $9 billion project, they are trying to stick consumers with a bill of at least $9,000 for a family of four, with payments stretching out for 60 years.
By my standard of corruption, below are some (just some) examples of the corruption that has recently come to light. You decide for yourself if you think this is corruption.
When the utilities spend millions of dollars on campaign contributions, lobbyist, and dark money payments to legislators and then get their special legislation passed in a highly irregular manner in just a few days with virtually no opposition.
When SCANA gives Gov. Henry McMaster $115,000 in campaign contribution in June, just as he’s beginning to negotiate with SCANA.
When not one of the 170 members of the legislature has disclosed how much dark money they have received from the utilities in unreported payment of retainer fees, consulting contracts, and the like to themselves and their immediate families.
When 32 legislators are appointed to investigate the utilities scandal and ALL of them have received money from either SCANA or the co-ops and 27 received contributions from both, and when only four have returned the money.
When the president of Santee Cooper, Lonnie Carter (a state employee), who presided over this disaster (and a previous $250 million construction scandal), resigns but gets a golden parachute of reportedly $16 million and no statehouse politicians have publicly said he should give it back.
When the top management of SCANA was paid more than $21 million in performance bonuses during the time that the nuclear project was going down the tubes, and none have resigned and no statehouse politicians have publicly said they should give it back.
And in non-nuclear scandals:
When Lt. Governor Kevin Bryant’s pharmacy business received $19.5 million from state government business over the last 10 years (he was first elected to the Senate in 2005) and there was no public condemnation from statehouse politicians.
When members of the legislature and their families are allowed to do millions of dollars’ worth of business with state government and they are not required to report this dark money.
And it just goes on and on and on.
From my perspective, it’s clear that Gov. McMaster, and the state legislature in general, are essentially a bought and paid for, wholly owned subsidiary of the utilities.
What do you think?
Now for the state house corruption investigation led by Solicitor David Pascoe. Last week, former House Majority Leader Jim Merrill resigned and pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Thus far, Solicitor David Pascoe has only indicted four members of the legislature – Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, Sen. John Courson, and former House Majority Leaders Rick Quinn and Jim Merrill.
We are only at the beginning of the beginning of this investigation.
Some months ago, the FBI and U.S. Justice Department joined the investigation – and they don’t play. They have only one agenda: send people to jail, the more the better. Some estimates put the number of indictments to come as high as 15 or 20, maybe more.
And this disease of corruption is infectious.
The indictments are expected to go beyond the statehouse to other politicians, government agencies, and businesses who ‘did business’ with those who are being indicted.
Pascoe’s investigation centers largely on Rick Quinn, his father Richard Quinn, and their political consulting business. Among the Quinns’ many clients are Gov. Henry McMaster, Sen. Lindsay Graham, Cong. Joe Wilson, Attorney General Alan Wilson, Treasurer Curtis Loftis, Superintended to Education Molly Spearman, Pres. Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell, and several dozen members of the legislature and other elected politicians. Other Quinn clients mentioned in court records of the probe include Trey Walker, Gov. McMaster’s Chief of Staff, SC Ports Authority, University of South Carolina, and others.
In the Merrill case, those mentioned in the indictment include Infilaw Management Solutions, Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, S.C. Association of Realtors, Student Transportation of America, Thomas & Hutton Engineering, S.C. Manufacturers Alliance, S.C. Association of Convenience Stores, and S.C. Trial Lawyers Association.
Now, clearly not all – if any – of these named above are guilty of a crime just because they are clients of the Quinns or Jim Merrill. I do not believe in guilt by association.
But it is clear that there are numerous statehouse politicians getting indicted for crimes - and they have been doing business, of some kind, with a vast network of people including many of the so-called top leadership of our state.
Those who lie down with dogs get up with fleas.
The key issue is this: Are these politicians looking after their own personal business or the people’s business? Are they focused on public service or private (often illegal) profit?
This disease of corruption is spreading.
As bad as the corruption itself is, the real tragedy is that this corruption has prevented us from having all the good things that we need and deserve.
We could have great schools, honest utility rates, a safe road system, a sound pension system, a fair tax system, higher education that doesn’t bury our young under a mountain of student debt…The list goes on and one and on.
We can have, and we deserve, all of these things and more, but the corrupt system keeps us from getting them.
You, your family, your community, and your business are being hurt today by this disease of corruption that has so infected our state.
It does not have to be this way. It really doesn’t.
We can do better. We deserve better.