South Carolina State Legislator’s Special Interest Pay Day Raises Ethical Questions
A South Carolina state lawmaker who previously lobbied for the Agricultural office SC has continued to work for the organization as a paid “marketing” consultant over the past seven years, documents filed with the State Ethics Commission of SC (SCSEC) reveal. Meanwhile, the representative of the State Russell ott publicly defended – and cast votes in favor of – the main legislative priorities of the organization as a member of the SC General Assembly.
Not only that, Ott acknowledges speaking to other state lawmakers and urging them to support these priorities.
Add another layer of intrigue to the equation? SC Farm Bureau is run by Ott’s father, former House Minority Leader Harry ott.
Is all of this ethical?
First, the facts: Russell Ott’s declarations of economic interest indicate he received an estimate $ 75,000 each year from SC Farm Bureau through its consulting firm – Center Hill Consulting, LLC. The revelations began in 2014 – the year after Ott was elected to replace his father in the SC. House of Representatives.
Prior to being elected to SC House on October 29, 2013, Ott was a lobbyist for SC Farm Bureau – a job he obviously could not continue given his status as a newly elected lawmaker. As a result, he entered into an “independent contractor agreement” with the organization on November 7, 2013 – barely a week after taking office.
This independent contractor agreement stipulated that Ott be paid $ 6,250 per month to perform “miscellaneous unrelated to lobbying member services (emphasis in original).
In the years that followed, Ott was (not surprisingly) a staunch supporter of the SC Farm Bureau. In fact, he has been a strong advocate – and a reliable vote – on behalf of his top legislative priorities, not to mention a recognized advocate for the SC Farm Bureau bills along with his colleagues. This year, for example, Ott has been an aggressive supporter of each of the group’s three main agenda items, including a bill to eradicate feral pigs in Palmetto state.
“Wild pigs are responsible for about $ 115 million in damage statewide each year,” a statement from the SC Farm Bureau noted. “The SCFB is working closely with lawmakers to secure continued funding for the USDA-administered feral pig eradication and control pilot program, which provides information on control options for this invasive species.
According to a recorded vote (.pdf) taken on February 23, 2021, Ott voted for the SC Farm Bureau-backed wild hog bill when he cleared the SC House. He passed the bill again (.pdf) on May 4, 2021 when it was amended by the Senate and voted it a third time (.pdf) on May 6, 2021 following further Senate changes .
This law was signed by the governor Henry mcmaster on May 17, 2021.
“We are delighted that we were able to pass this law,” Ott’s father said in a statement. “While this is not the only solution to the feral pig problem, it is certainly a step in the right direction. I am grateful that the General Assembly and its staff listened to our farmers and took action.
According to Elder Ott, his organization “paved the way for the passage of the bill.”
Russell Ott has also been a strong supporter of expanding rural high-speed Internet access – another major priority for the SC Farm Bureau.
“As was made clear as we moved to a ‘virtual meeting company’, broadband access in rural areas needs to be improved,” a statement from the organization noted. “SCFB is working with the General Assembly to increase funding and broadband access for our rural communities. “
Ott cited “improving broadband” as one of his top priorities in a January 2020 opinion piece published by State (Columbia, SC) newspaper – and helped push through legislation to that effect. In fact, Ott voted in favor of a rural broadband bill that cleared the SC House of Representatives on September 24, 2020 and was enacted by McMaster five days later.
Ott cited his support for additional “broadband accessibility” in a February 2021 interview with the Catholic News Agency.
Another issue Ott has championed and high on the SC Farm Bureau’s priority list is reforming Palmetto state’s water laws.
“Currently, the water is managed by several government agencies,” the organization noted in a statement. “All the red tape (different for each agency) can lead to policy and efficiency gaps, and also make it difficult for farmers to access this resource. SCFB believes that water management should be managed by a single agency in order to increase transparency and reduce burdensome regulations for agriculture.
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Ott addressed this question in an October 2020 interview with a reporter. Chloe johnson of Post and courier (Charleston, SC), mimicking the language of the SC Farm Bureau that existing regulations are “too onerous” and subjecting rural areas to punitive “scrutiny”.
Is Ott’s plea on behalf of SC Farm Bureau legal?
The Palmetto State Code of Laws (§ 8-13-700) expressly prohibits officials elected or appointed in Palmetto State from using their “official position or office for financial gain”.
“No public official, member of the public or public employee may knowingly use his official function, membership or employment to obtain an economic interest for himself, a member of his family, a person with whom he is associated or a company with which he is associated. , specifies the law.
Since Ott and his father are paid by this organization, how does what he does comply with the letter of the law?
In addition, the law states that “no public official, member of the public or public employee may make, participate in the creation or attempt in any way to use his position, membership or employment to influence a decision. government in which he, a member of his family, a natural person with whom he is associated or a company with which he is associated has an economic interest.
Again, this would seem to hinder Ott from his current paid advocacy on behalf of this organization and its legislative priorities.
In cases where officials are “required” to take action which “affects an economic interest” to them (or their family or an individual or business with which they have links), a multitude of disclosure requirements come into play. Game.
Where are Assumed to get started …
Specifically, lawmakers must provide the clerk of the SC House with a written statement describing the “nature of his potential conflict of interest.” This statement must be “printed in the appropriate journal”, in which case the clerk must “require that the member of the General Assembly be excused from voting, deliberating and any other action on the matter on which a potential conflict exists”.
Does this happen? Uh … no. Almost never.
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In this case, Ott did the right thing by disclosing his conflict of interest over his declarations of economic interest to the State Ethics Commission of SC (SCSEC). I give it all the credit. Unfortunately, I believe he did the wrong thing by failing to recuse himself from several laws supported by his employer.
Ott told me on Tuesday that he “disagreed with this reading of the law” – and made a distinction between legislation that provides a direct financial benefit to the SC Farm Bureau and legislation that is public interest.
“I was lobbying for Farm Bureau before I went to the General Assembly,” Ott told me. “I have a contract with Farm Bureau, I am not an employee. The working relationship with them is outside all that is legislative. “
Ott produced typed notes during a meeting he had on July 2, 2013 with Cathy Noisetier, the former staff attorney of the SCSEC. According to these notes (.pdf), Ott was informed that “the only types of votes that I should abstain from voting would be those that would have a direct impact on SCFB”.
According to Ott, Hazelwood also recommended that he “refrain from being the main sponsor of any legislation which is pushed solely on behalf of SCFB”.
Ott says he has followed these rules since joining SC House.
“I can’t vote on anything that directly benefits Farm Bureau,” Ott told me. “If this is a general statewide policy related to agriculture, there is no ban there.”
Ott also told me that he “never asked a fellow lawmaker to support a measure directly benefiting the Farm Bureau,” but asked lawmakers to support the bills the organization identified. as its main legislative priorities.
“I never broached a subject with any member of the General Assembly and told them ‘this is a Farm Bureau position, we have to support it,’” said Ott. “In my opinion, that would be lobbying on behalf of Farm Bureau. “
Stay tuned… I plan to publish extensively on these kinds of arrangements in the very near future. In the meantime, however, I think it is important to state unequivocally that any lawmaker who receives compensation from an entity having affairs before the state should know not to vote for or publicly defend his priorities. legislative.
In fact, I think that such compensation should be outright prohibited …
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will people is the founding editor of the newspaper you are reading now. Prior to founding FITSNews he was the press secretary to the Governor of South Carolina and before that he was a bassist and scuba bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children. And yes, he has a LOT of hats (including the Toronto Blue Jays cover pictured above).
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