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All political contributions should be disclosed

The State - Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Any honest look at history reveals some of the greatest wrongs have come as a result of government's actions against its own people. I have become increasingly convinced that such a wrong exists in our state. It has one of two explanations: Either South Carolina is for sale to the highest bidder, or the governor's office is shaking down companies that have business before our state.

While no one would deny that money is important in politics, there is a difference between donating to a campaign and a system of political spoils. We have a right to express our political beliefs by supporting candidates, but we should not tolerate decisions that are reached (or appear to have been reached) based on who gave the most money.

Since his first gubernatorial campaign in 1998, Jim Hodges has consistently blurred this distinction. During the lottery debate and now in his re-election campaign, a correlation is developing between entities that support his political ambitions and those who have business before our state. I have grown weary of hearing businesspeople tell me, "I would like to help you but we have got to support Hodges for business reasons." Even if that perception were only a misperception among businesspeople, the fact that it exists is wrong.

Tragically, it is more than a misperception. In his latest filing with the State Ethics Commission, Mr. Hodges disclosed $17,500 in contributions from a cluster of Colorado-based construction companies, all of which use the same mailing address. It turns out one of these companies, Flatiron Structures, has been selected as a partner in the new $531 million Cooper River Bridge and is managing partner for the $240 million Carolina Bays Parkway. With so many transportation contracts out there, should we be surprised that Gov. Hodges' latest filing reveals at least $150,000 in contributions from construction-related firms? Should we be surprised many of these firms appear on the Transportation Department's List of Qualified Bidders?

Here is what concerns me: Phillips and Jordan of Knoxville, Tenn., the construction firm selected to grade the Conway Bypass, not only gave $3,500 to Gov. Hodges this past quarter but also gave $1,000 last year to the Lottery Coalition. What interest could this company, or California-based Flour Enterprises (which gave $2,500 to Mr. Hodges this quarter and $1,000 to the lottery and was awarded the general contract for the Conway Bypass) possibly have in South Carolina's lottery? What on earth does a lottery have to do with grading a highway? We all know why Scientific Games contributed; after giving $25,000 to the Lottery Coalition, it happened to be awarded the lucrative lottery distribution contract. But how do these construction companies explain their contributions? And how does Gov. Hodges explain accepting them?

For that matter, why did New York investment firms Paine-Webber, Salomon Smith Barney and Goldman Sachs donate a combined $22,750 to the S.C. Lottery for Better Schools Coalition in 2000? I used to work for Goldman Sachs. Goldman Sachs has no more interest in South Carolina's lottery than you and I have in New York's lottery. These firms are interested in securing tobacco bond business in South Carolina and are merely paying the price of admission.

Sadly, these contributions may be only the tip of the iceberg. If there is a pattern of giving to the governor and his causes, how much more do these entities give to his political party or invest as an independent expenditure on his behalf? Companies can give $10 million -- or more -- to the Democratic Party without having to report anything, and if they gave $10 million, what do they expect in return?

Last year, Gov. Hodges vetoed legislation that would have required stricter disclosure of campaign contributions. He commissioned a task force on campaign finance reform only to have its recommendations gather dust on his desk for the last seven months.

Gov. Hodges and I see these issues very differently. If elected governor, I would fight for disclosure of independent expenditures and soft money contributions to political parties -- Republican and Democratic. If someone seeks to influence an election, or is essentially required by a politician to pay homage for a paving contract, it should be disclosed for all S.C. taxpayers to critique.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "There is only one force in the nation that can be depended upon to keep the government pure and the governors honest, and that is the people themselves." It is time for the people of South Carolina to keep our government pure and our governor honest -- and we need the light of day on all political contributions to do that.