Henry’s got some ‘splainin’ to do

I tend to yawn at debates over technical violations of ethics rules. Perhaps that will shock you, since journalists tend to be the ones who get the MOST worked up about such.

Consider it yet another one of the little ways that I have always tended to be a contrarian. Here’s my thinking on the matter: Ethics rules usually have little or nothing to do with right or wrong. They’re almost always about the appearance of right or wrong — and usually pretty narrow-gauge rights and wrongs at that. For instance, ethics laws really fret over the appearance of a conflict of interest. I worry about it when it actually leads to (or rather points to; the cause and effect relationship can be fuzzy) a public figure doing something wrong.

For instance — I remember a lot of folks getting really concerned about David Beasley accepting plane rides from folks associated with the Barnwell nuclear waste dump, from whom he had also received campaign contributions. People went on and on about these plane rides, like they mattered. (Folks who get worked up about ethics laws have a particular obsession with plane rides, as we’ve seen recently.)

Me, I was more concerned about the fact that Gov. Beasley had thrown careful interstate negotiations out the window in a reckless bid to overturn years and years of bipartisan effort to get some state other than South Carolina to be the region’s nuclear toilet for awhile. Mind you, he had already done this before all the hoo-hah about the plane rides. I kept trying to explain to anyone who would listen that the plane rides were only significant in that they might point to a cozy relationship with the dump people, which could portend that the governor might do something in the interest of the dump people rather than the interest of the people of South Carolina. But folks, he had already done the worst thing he could have done along those lines. This worrisome indicator (the disclosure of the plane rides) was superfluous and after the fact, and it interested me not in the slightest. It was a matter of straining at gnats.

It struck me as particularly dumb that Democrats were making a huge deal over the plane rides, and to my mind never made enough of the trashing of our nuclear waste policy (if Jim Hodges had run on that instead of the state lottery, he still would have won).

Actually, I could have just given you this short explanation: I care more about the substance than I do the appearance.

Anyway, having the attitude I do about these things, I didn’t make much initially of the story about Henry McMaster’s contributions from lawyers working for the state. But as it happens, The Wall Street Journal did pay attention, and made quite a deal of it:

More interesting than the suit’s dubious merits are Lilly’s recent court filings about the AG’s ties to trial lawyers. Mr. McMaster in 2006 chose three private lawyers—John S. Simmons, John Belton White, Jr., and F. Kenneth Bailey, Jr.—to prosecute Lilly on behalf of the state. The no-bid contingency contract—which Mr. McMaster refused to produce to Lilly for nearly a year—gives the private lawyers a sliding-scale cut of any judgment or settlement, a jackpot potentially worth tens of millions of dollars.

About a month after filing the case in 2007, according to the Lilly documents, Mr. Simmons’s law firm had turned around to contribute the maximum amount allowable ($3,500) under state law to Mr. McMaster’s re-election. Mr. White’s law firm contributed the same amount on the same day, and Mr. White later added a personal maximum donation. All told, the law firms, their lawyers and spouses have contributed more than $60,000 to Mr. McMaster since 2006. The AG can transfer this money to his gubernatorial account.

This sweetheart deal is rife with conflict of interest, and Lilly’s filing also lays out the legal and constitutional problems. Consider due process. Both the U.S. and South Carolina constitutions make clear that the state and its lawyers must be guided by justice and the public interest, not monetary gain. South Carolinians would be outraged if Mr. McMaster won a personal financial cut of any case he won as Attorney General. How is it better that his lawyers get it instead?

And as uninterested as I tend to be in such things, they managed to get my interest in the way they described why it was a bad thing. (It used to be Cindi Scoppe’s job, as the one journalist who knew the most and cared the most about state ethics law, to persuade me when an ethics case was actually worth caring about, and she was good at it. Now I don’t have her around to persuade me, so the WSJ did the persuading this time.)

I’m still not clear that Henry violated any ethics rules in taking this money. But as I say, that’s the kind of thing that bores me. (By the way, the reason most journalists get so worked up over whether an ethics rule — which is usually about appearances, not substance — was technically broken is that news people don’t get to make a judgment call and say, This guy did a bad thing. They can only report whether it technically violated a rule. So they go ape over whether a technical line was crossed, and their eyes are closed to policy actions that are monumentally bad, because with those they have to present just as many views saying it wasn’t bad as saying it was. Are you following me? It’s one of the reasons I put news behind me and moved to editorial in 1994.) What interests me is that the Journal piece makes a pretty good case that there is a degree of coziness here that is a bad thing.

Set aside that the Journal‘s motive is likely the fact that they want to stick up for Big Pharma. Bottom line, this is another embarrassing black eye for South Carolina. Not as bad as Sanford’s Argentina travesty or Joe Wilson’s ongoing foolishness, but the GOPs most promising gubernatorial candidate didn’t need this headache. Henry’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.

7 thoughts on “Henry’s got some ‘splainin’ to do

  1. Brad Warthen

    I should point out something about the David Beasley anecdote, which helps explain why I remember it…

    Dick Harpootlian was making a big deal about the plane trips, and really got upset with us because we didn’t. I mean, we were kicking Beasley all the time because of the actual bad thing he did — trashing our nuclear waste policy — but had no interest in the “ethics” story that was a pale shadow of that actual bad thing.

    Then, Dick discovered that Beasley had ALSO ridden to Washington on a plane owned by Knight Ridder, which back then owned The State. He had gone there to attend the Gridiron Show, as Lee Bandy’s guest, I think. Lee was one of the few KR journalists to belong to Gridiron (he usually had a singing part in the show), a fact that never did me a bit of good, because KR fat cats always used his tickets. In fact, the fact that Beasley went as their guest would have been, if anything, a sore point with those of us deciding whether we cared about the plane rides on the waste company’s plane.
    Dick tried to make it look like this proved a cozy relationship between Beasley and the paper that explained why we didn’t care about the superficial signs of the cozy relationship with the waste people (foolish us, we cared only about the actual horrible policy decision he had made as a result of, or at least concurrently with, that relationship).
    This made no sense. Even if we’d had anything to do with the Gridiron trip, I don’t see how that constituted Beasley doing anything for US that would make us feel obliged to do anything in response. If anything, he owed US and not the other way around.
    It made zero sense. But that’s the way these “ethics” things so often play out. It’s about the appearance of a relationship, not about any actual quid pro quo. It’s not even about the relationship itself, just the appearance of it. It gets pretty ridiculous sometimes.

  2. Lee Muller

    All that jibberish about “interstate negotiations to get other states to accept nuclear waste” was just a tactic of the Luddites who want to stop all nuclear research and industry.

    SC and Tennessee already have billions of dollars of infrastructure and expertise to handle nuclear storage and recycling. They may not have been the ideal places to originally locate such facilities, but they are here, and too expense to duplicate or replace.

  3. Randy E

    The Senator Ensign affair and cover up is exploding. He used his influence to get the man who was both his aid and the husband of Ensign’s mistress a job as a lobbyist. This man immediately started lobbying Ensign who intervened in two situations involving the clients of this man’s new firm.

    That is red meat for journalist!

  4. kbfenner

    I hate it when I agree with Lee, but he’s right on. We have the infrastructure and the skills to deal with nuclear materials. We are the best in the nation, alongside Oak Ridge, TN.

    While I do understand that perhaps in-house lawyers do not have the expertise that outside lawyers do to pursue this kind of case, I do wonder whether (a) a contingency fee was warranted, and if so, whether it should have been capped, and (b) other firms in South Carolina were not similarly capable of handling such a suit and should have been given an opportunity to bid, which would have perhaps lowered the contingency rate and set a cap—the free market at work to drive down prices.

    The subsequent ethics violations are the smoke that leads inquiring minds—ahem—to the fire.

  5. Lee Muller

    When outside experts in engineering, science, medicine or architecture are hired to explore an issue for the state, contingency fees are unheard of, forbidden by the ethics laws.

  6. kbfenner

    Ethics? How boring! ;>)

    There are some good reasons to have contingency legal fees. I’m not at all sure this was one of them. Certainly unlimited contingency fees…


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