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The Rise and Fall of Bobby Harrell

Phil Noble

Phil Noble

by Phil Noble

There is a New Testament admonition that we should hate the sin and love the sinner.

So, first the sinner. I’m sure that if I lived in Bobby Harrell’s West Ashely neighborhood, he’d be a good neighbor and I’d probably like him. He’s the kind of guy that has everyone over to watch the big ball game on his supersized TV in the basement, puts out a great spread with lots of cold beer and never asks others to chip in.

I don’t personally know Harrell and I’ve never really had any significant direct dealings with him. I’ve met him a few times, we passed a few polite comments back and forth and that was about it. Years ago, his father was the agent for my car insurance and he held the House seat that Bobby first won back in the early 90’s. I have a vague memory of a conversation with Dad about how proud he was when Bobby was first elected and how his young son was so idealistic about going to Columbia to do good things for our state. I’m sure it was the case.

But along the way, things began to change. As Bobby shimmied up the greasy pole of political power in Columbia, the all too familiar story began to play out – “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” By the time of his fall, Harrell’s power in the House was essentially absolute. He was in charge and nothing of consequence – literally nothing – happened without his approval.

And then the sin begins to fester and grow. “The rules don’t apply to me… he crossed me and I’ll punish him until he begs for mercy… we can ignore that law… he’s a supporter and he needs money.” And on and on it goes.

As predictable and in some senses as ordinary as Harrell’s corruption is, there are several aspects of his case that are important to consider.

First, as the Post and Courier headline suggests, it’s the tip of the iceberg. Anyone who pays even casual attention to goings-on in Columbia knows that there is a pervasive culture of corruption. It’s literally everywhere – the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, the executive and judicial branches as well as the legislative, the system of lobbyist and campaign contributions, law makers routinely using political influence for personal gain. It’s called “politics as usual.”

In another ironic twist of the politics-as-usual system, Harrell’s attorney is none other than Bart Daniel who was the prosecutor in Lost Trust, the last big ethics scandal we had back in the 90’s that sent about 10% of the SC Legislature to jail.

For way too many, politics has simply become a personal profit center at the expense of the people they are supposed to serve.

And, as the press accounts make clear, Harrell’s deal to stay out of jail is that he has to cooperate fully with future prosecutions, i.e. spill his guts about what he knows about other corruption – and he knows a lot. Harrell is just the beginning.

Second, the corruption in Columbia is banal; the amounts of money involved are laughably small. Harrell’s charges involved a few hundred dollars at best and in reality much was just penny ante stuff. That’s not to diminish the seriousness of what he did, but it is ironic that in the same week, Mike Hubbard, the Speaker of the House in Alabama was indicted on 23 felony ethics violations that potentially involved as much as $10 million dollars. One keen Alabama political observer said of Harrell compared to Hubbard “…he’s a piker compared with the Alabama crowd that has stolen everything in sight.”

And it has been this way for years. During the Lost Trust scandal, one legislator regularly sold his votes “for a few shirts.” Not long ago, I overheard a prominent lobbyist in Columbia brag after several large glasses of brown liquor, “I buy these guys out of the petty cash account.”

Third, it’s ironic that Harrell was brought down largely as a result of the relentless and courageous persistence of Ashley Landess of the SC Policy Council. The Policy Council is a very conservative and very Republican oriented organization, but if it had not been for Landess, Harrell would still be flying high today – literally at the taxpayers’ expense. She has done our state a great service on this issue and she is to be commended – and that’s coming from a committed Democrat.

Fourth, the corruption in Columbia is a bipartisan venture. The silence from the Democrats about Harrell and ethics violations in general has been deafening. Given the lopsided Republican majorities, many Democrats have long since given up on trying to win anything and have simply decided that public service can be profitable pillage. As the future indictments begin to come down, folks from both parties will regularly be seen on the evening news.

There is at least the possibility of some good to come from all this. Over the next year or two, as the scandal grows, hopefully – and it’s no sure thing – the people of this state will be up in arms and demand real ethics reform. Anyone who has read this space knows that I’ve been banging the drum about the need for ethics reform for years…and for the first time in a long while I believe it may actually be possible.

Maybe – but only if “we the people” don’t get cynical about all this and throw up our hands in disgust. We can do better, and we will if we demand real reform.

While I breathe I hope.

Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform. phil@scnewdemocrats.org   www.SCNewDemocrats.org

Agency Mum on $6 Million Contract for Consulting Firm

By Rick Brundrett for TheNerve.org
October 24, 2014

A consulting firm hired by ex-state Department of Social Services Director Lillian Koller when she earlier headed Hawaii’s social services agency received more than $10 million while in the Aloha State, and obtained a $6 million contract in South Carolina after Koller transferred here, records show.

And the South Carolina contract is on top of a $719,000 “emergency” procurement that DSS obtained for Benton & Associates Ltd. of Ellicott City, Md., which the S.C. Legislative Audit Council described as “improper” in a critical audit of the agency released earlier this month.

The audit found that a contract between DSS and Winthrop University for $20 million and two other contracts between DSS and the University of South Carolina for $50.8 million were the “result of non-competitive procurement methods.” That reduces the “probability that the vendors selected were the best combination of quality and price,” and also can “create the perception that contract awards are based on favoritism,” the audit noted. Read the rest of this entry »

University of South Carolina #3 Nick Jones WR blocks against Furman #3 Andrej Suttles

University of South Carolina #3 Nick Jones WR blocks against Furman #3 Andrej Suttles~Photo by William Thornley

University of South Carolina #3 Nick Jones WR blocks against Furman #3 Andrej Suttles~Photo by William Thornley

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University of South Carolina #28 Mike Davis TB dives for TD against Furman

University of South Carolina #28 Mike Davis TB dives for TD against Furman ~Photo by William Thornley

University of South Carolina #28 Mike Davis TB dives for TD against Furman ~Photo by William Thornley

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“Suit Up” from The Times and Democrat

"Suit Up" from The Times and Democrat

“Suit Up” from The Times and Democrat

“Jobless Doc” from The Times and Democrat

" Jobless Doc" from The Times and Democrat

“Jobless Doc” from The Times and Democrat

“Even If” from The Times and Democrat

"Even If" from The Times and Democrat

“Even If” from The Times and Democrat

“Ebola” by Stuart Neiman

"Ebola" by Stuart Neiman

“Ebola” by Stuart Neiman

USC red shirt freshman running back David Williams carries the ball in Saturday's game with Furman. Photo Jerry E. Halmon, The Advertizer Herald Newspaper

USC red shirt freshman running back David Williams carries the ball in Saturday’s game with Furman. Photo Jerry E. Halmon, The Advertizer Herald Newspaper

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USC, HBC Steve Spurrier (center) goes on the field to talk with his team in time out in Saturday's game with Furman. Photo Jerry E. Halmon, The Advertizer Herald

USC, HBC Steve Spurrier (center) goes on the field to talk with his team in time out in Saturday’s game with Furman. Photo Jerry E. Halmon, The Advertizer Herald

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Furman running back Issac Garcia runs for yardage in Saturday's game with USC. Photo Jerry E. Halmon, The Advertizer Herald

Furman running back Issac Garcia runs for yardage in Saturday’s game with USC. Photo Jerry E. Halmon, The Advertizer Herald

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USC tight end Jerrell Adams celebrates a touchdown with teammates Dylan Thompson, Nick Jones and Cody Gibson in yesterday's win over Furman. Photo Jerry E. Halmon The Advertizer Herald

USC tight end Jerrell Adams celebrates a touchdown with teammates Dylan Thompson, Nick Jones and Cody Gibson in yesterday’s win over Furman. Photo Jerry E. Halmon The Advertizer Herald

USC's Mike Davis eludes a Furman defender on the way to a score in Saturday's game with Furman. Photo Jerry E. Halmon The Advertizer Herald

USC’s Mike Davis eludes a Furman defender on the way to a score in Saturday’s game with Furman. Photo Jerry E. Halmon The Advertizer Herald

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Ebola, Fear and Politics – from Bamberg to Bangkok

Phil Noble

Phil Noble

by Phil Noble

Ebola is scary. It has scared the bejesus out of us here in South Carolina, nationally and literally all over the world.

Today’s newspaper headlines tell a variation of a story that seems like something straight out of a Tom Clancy novel or a Hollywood disaster movie. On the other side of the world, in some God forsaken village mired in utter poverty, something happens and one young girl gets sick and pretty soon the whole village is dying out. Someone from the outside world shows up to investigate, unknowingly gets contaminated and goes back to the city. They expose someone else who gets on an airplane to Amsterdam and in a matter of hours the unknown deadly infection is spread all over the world.

It’s everywhere – or could be – and it scares us to death.

Most of us only really know two things about Ebola: 1) it’s highly contagious and people are dying by the thousands from it in Africa and it has spread to the US, and 2) there is virtually nothing we can individually do about it and we seem to be totally dependent on “the government” to tell us what to do and to keep us safe.

Recently I was in Bamberg and one morning while eating my Egg McMuffin, I overheard a group of morning regulars at McDonalds talking about the crisis. It was frightening, confusing and occasionally just downright weird – all at the same time. A random collection of their comments:

“I’m thinking about taking my daughter out of school until this whole thing blows over”…”My cousin is a nurse and she said it could infect the whole town and kill everybody before anyone even knew it was here”…”I don’t think anyone knows what to do”…”Obama is a lot more concerned about taking care of those Africans than he is about taking care of us…he’s one of them”… “I think it’s those ISIS people from Iraq that’s behind it, they are crazy enough to do it”… “My kids are scared to death and I don’t know what to tell them”…“We send all our money to the government and they can’t stop this, they’re awful.”

As I sat there listening, it occurred to me that there is probably a very similar group sitting in a McDonalds in Bangkok having the same conversation. Other than perhaps the Obama comment, it’s the same fears, same uncertainties and same sense of helplessness worldwide.

This is something new to us on planet earth – something happens at an obscure location on the other side of the world and literally in a matter of hours, it could be affecting us and our family personally here in Bamberg…or Bangkok or Berlin or Beirut.

Nobody really knows what this means. We as a society and individually are all going to have to re-think a lot of very big and important things in our lives.

I don’t pretend to know anything more about Ebola than my friends at the McDonalds in Bamberg or Bangkok, but here are a few random thoughts:

This is the new normal. Global interconnectedness is here to stay. We can’t go back to a world of Andy, Opie and Aunt Bea in Mayberry and we need to aggressively act to shape our future instead of simply pining away for some long-ago image of an ideal past that many of us are carrying around in our head.

Science matters. We need to listen to the experts and not the politicians. We have allowed an anti-science political mentality to take root in our country and it’s hurting us. Whether its Ebola, climate change or nuclear safety or childhood obesity, we need to listen to the science and not some Congressman Goober from west Texas on the TV news spouting nonsense because some special interest group pays him to do it.

Government is not the enemy. Hopefully this will make the Tea Party / government-is-the-enemy crowd re-think things a bit. The Centers for Disease Control, the UN World Health Organization and such are certainly not perfect, but they are all we have. It’s suicidal to not recognize we need such “big government / one world” organizations.

We need to learn about the world. We in the US and especially in South Carolina (and I suspect Bangkok too) can be very provincial. Eating at the International House of Pancakes or driving a Honda or using a Samsung smart phone does not enhance our global understanding. And, most importantly, we need to teach our children that there is a big world beyond Bamberg and South Carolina; we need to encourage them to explore it – even if we don’t understand it ourselves and it’s a little scary to us as well.

We need to cultivate a greater sense of humility and compassion. We were born and raised as Americans – we think of ourselves as the biggest and baddest, the most powerful and richest folks on Earth. We believe there’s nothing our fighter jets can’t kill or our big money can’t buy. It ain’t so. Mr. Ebola doesn’t seem to have much respect for the size of our GDP. And the mother in West Africa cradling her dying daughter loves her just as much as the frightened mother in Bamberg loves hers.

There are those of us who look at this new Globalization and see nothing but good – the Internet, cheap air travel, open global markets, etc. These are all good things but they are not the whole story. It’s more complicated; there are no easy answers and no sound-bite solutions to many problems we face.

There is a lot of uncertainty in this new world. But there is one thing I know for certain – we can’t go back.

This is the new reality, for good and for ill. We must learn to shape the future and not just blindly accept what comes.

Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform. phil@scnewdemocrats.org   www.SCNewDemocrats.org

The no. 4 ranked Red Raiders of Bamberg-Ehrhardt will attempt to bounce back to night against no.3 Estill after last week's close lost to no. 3 ranked Allendale-Fairfax. (Photo Jerry Halmon, The Advertizer-Herald)

The no. 4 ranked Red Raiders of Bamberg-Ehrhardt will attempt to bounce back to night against no.3 Estill after last week’s close lost to no. 3 ranked Allendale-Fairfax. (Photo Jerry Halmon, The Advertizer-Herald)

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House subcommittee receives testimony on FOI laws

By Felicia Kitzmiller, Herald Journal

felicia.kitzmiller@shj.com

South Carolina residents face several obstacles to accessing information about their government, and a subcommittee charged with smoothing the process turned to those on the front lines for input during a hearing Wednesday.

About a dozen people, including a group from the S.C. Press Association and several government officials, told the subcommittee led by Rep. Weston Newton, R-Beaufort, about problems with the Freedom of Information Act and issues presented by past attempts to overhaul the law.

Newton’s subcommittee is part of an ethics reform study committee led by Rep. Derham Cole, R-Spartanburg, appointed by acting Speaker of the House Jay Lucas and tasked with finding a way to implement successful ethics reform. The committee’s creation comes after an ethics reform package died at the close of last session, and the indictment of Rep. Bobby Harrell on several charges of misconduct in office.

“Transparency and accountability is appropriate to be addressed, and it is something that needs to be addressed,” Newton said.

The current Freedom of Information Act lacks enforcement, time requirements for governments to produce requested documents and prescribed pricing for producing the documents. One business owner told the committee she waited more than a year before her Freedom of Information Act request to a state agency was fulfilled.

Lee Harter, editor of the Orangeburg Times & Democrat, said the Freedom of Information Act is designed for residents to be able to access information about their government. In many cases, he said residents rely on the press to obtain that information, both out of convenience and necessity.

“I can’t think of anything that is a more day-to-day issue than the Freedom of Information Act,” Harter said. “The press is charged with getting information using the Freedom of Information Act as part of our job. …The press is charged with making sure the government is open.”

Doug Pardue, investigative reporter for the Charleston Post & Courier, said his paper is frequently quoted exorbitant fees for information, but is able to negotiate with governments. Average residents, who the law is supposed to assist, do not have the time or information necessary to haggle with governments and are left without the information.

“And there’s a cost beyond not finding out what government is doing, and that’s the disappointment and disillusion citizens face,” said Michael Smith, executive editor of the Herald-Journal. “That citizen goes away thinking, ‘What do they have to hide.’ Secrecy always breeds suspicion. And when citizens can’t get the information they know they are entitled to, they lose faith in their government.”

In the past, Smith said, newspapers have had the capacity to compel governments to produce documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act by filing a lawsuit — the only enforcement mechanism available under the law. But economic pressures have shrunk newsroom budgets, making fighting government secrecy more difficult and less likely. Smith said he thinks some governments take advantage of the situation.

The minimum cost of filing a lawsuit is $6,000 to $7,000, said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association. A decreasing number of newspapers have that ability, and very few individuals, have that ability.

“The law means nothing if it can’t be enforced,” Rogers said.

Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, has introduced legislation the last two sessions to allow administrative law judges to rule on Freedom of Information Act disputes, eliminating the need for costly lawsuits. Taylor, previously a broadcast journalist, also proposed a maximum time of 10 days to produce documents.

Steve Willis, administrator for Lancaster County, said the time requirement would be onerous for governments trying to comply with the law. Willis said his office tries to be accessible to residents and the media, and honor requests efficiently. After a mix up a few years ago, Willis said his county council appointed the clerk as a point person for all Freedom of Information Act requests to ensure they are responded to fully and promptly.

“We learned a long time ago, don’t pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel and paper by the ton,” he said.

But this task was added to the clerk’s existing responsibilities, and sometimes, when she is sick or on vacation, fulfilling requests in 10 days could be difficult. Lancaster is like many small counties facing lean budget times, in part as a result of unfunded mandates and taxing restrictions from the state legislature, which makes hiring a full-time public information officer impossible, Willis said.

“Just keep in mind there’s a lot of us out there trying hard and some of the proposed changes could really effect us negatively,” he said.

Bob Mihalic, government affairs coordinator for Greenville County, said most Freedom of Information Act requests to his agency are fulfilled without issue. However, he said governments need to retain the right to deny vast requests for information that absorb public resources, often for private gain.

“The majority of FOIA are turned around within 24 to 48 hours. …I would say 95 percent of FOIA requests. It’s those other 5 percent, the frivolous ones, we need protection from,” he said.

Past attempts to reform the Freedom of Information Act have stumbled because of an exemption for lawmakers. Trying to reverse this exemption has become known as the “poison pill” of reform efforts, as legislators are unlikely to vote in favor of a bill that will take away the protected status of their documents.

Rogers and other open-government activists at the meeting have said while they want to see the legislative exemption repealed, or at least narrowed, they are willing to sacrifice that access in favor of enforcement capabilities.

Newton, however, said real reform is needed to address the exemption.

“I, for one, believe that access to what public officials do does not stop at the sidewalk,” he said. “Hopefully, we won’t end up with ‘do as I say, not as I do’ legislation.”

A second meeting of the subcommittee has not been scheduled, but Newton wants to have another day of testimony from stakeholders before legislation is drafted.

“Past Due” from The Times and Democrat

"Past Due" from The Times and Democrat

“Past Due” from The Times and Democrat

“Bad News” from The Times and Democrat

"Bad News" from The Times and Democrat

“Bad News” from The Times and Democrat

“Got Coffee?” from The Times and Democrat

"Got Coffee?" from The Times and Democrat

“Got Coffee?” from The Times and Democrat

“College Students” by Stuart Neiman

"College Students" by Stuart Neiman

“College Students” by Stuart Neiman

Louisville at Clemson October 11, 2014

Quick avoids tackle

Louisville wide receiver James Quick (17) dodges a tackle by Clemson cornerback Cordrea Tankersley to gain a few extra yards before being tackled during ACC conference action at Memorial Stadium in Clemson on Saturday, October 11. The Tigers held on to win the game 23-17. (Photo by Michael Lollis/The Williamston Journal)

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