S.C. Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, was suspended from his State House seat in March by Gov. Henry McMaster after he was charged with misconduct in office, related to special prosecutor David Pascoe’s corruption probe. File photo
S.C. Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, was suspended from his State House seat in March by Gov. Henry McMaster after he was charged with misconduct in office, related to special prosecutor David Pascoe’s corruption probe. File photo

The Buzz

A blog from The State's political team of Jamie Self, Avery Wilks, Maayan Schechter and Bristow Marchant.

The Buzz

Indicted. Guilty. Yet these SC lawmakers still are pulling in taxpayer money

By Maayan Schechter

mschechter@thestate.com

January 02, 2018 07:58 AM

Three S.C. lawmakers who have pleaded guilty to public corruption charges still are picking up a major retirement perk after leaving office – paid for by state taxpayers.

Those same retirement benefits cover three other lawmakers – a suspended state senator and two retired House representatives – who now face trial as part of the same State House corruption investigation, led by special prosecutor David Pascoe.

In total, retirement benefits for the six legislators will cost S.C. taxpayers about $200,000 a year, according to the state’s pension agency.

Taxpayers pay the state’s part-time lawmakers about $22,400 a year – $10,400 in salary and $12,000 for expenses, including mileage, food and hotel costs.

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After retiring, legislators often fare far better – making far more – because of the generous pension system for S.C. lawmakers. That system covers three state representatives who have entered guilty pleas to charges in the ongoing State House corruption probe and a state senator who faces trial, along with two other former state representatives.

Some legislators say it is time to reconsider whether disgraced legislators should be able to get taxpayer-funded retirements when they resign from office.

“The drum is beating loud,” said state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland.

Hefty retirement pay

Legislative pensions are lucrative.

A lawmaker who retires after 30 years in office would take home $32,390 a year in retirement pay – about three times more than other state employees, according a formula provided by the state’s retirement agency.

Lawmakers in leadership positions make even more.

The S.C. House speaker, for example, is paid about $33,400 a year in salary, including in-district expenses. After 30 years in office, that same lawmaker would get about $48,296 a year in retirement pay.

In 2012, legislators voted to close their special pension system to new lawmakers. Instead, new members can join the state’s retirement system offered to all employees. But the old, special legislative retirement system continues to benefit many of the Legislature’s 170 members who were in office before 2012.

As part of the now-closed legislative retirement system, legislators who serve eight years can leave office but continue contributing about $2,500 a year into the retirement system and draw pension benefits when they retire.

Also, legislators who turn 60 while in office can retire and get benefits no matter how many years they contributed to the retirement system. Lawmakers also can stay in office and draw retirement benefits if they have been members of the pension system for 30 years or if they turn 70 while in office. The pension system also pays lawmakers who remain in office after retiring.

On the heels of then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s resignation in 2014 after his guilty plea to misusing campaign money, Rep. Ballentine filed a proposal to strip lawmakers who commit a crime of their state health and dental benefits.

Ballentine’s proposal would have barred current and recent lawmakers from receiving those benefits if they were convicted or entered a guilty plea to a felony, a crime that involves moral criminality, a crime that carries a sentence of two or more years in jail or violating the state’s election laws.

However, Ballentine’s proposal stalled in the House after picking up only two co-sponsors.

Reached Thursday, Harrell declined to comment on whether taxpayers should pay pensions to legislators who are convicted or plead guilty to wrongdoing. The former lawmaker said he is contemplating a run for his former House seat, representing part of Charleston.

How much they make

It is unclear exactly how much taxpayers are paying in retirement benefits to the S.C. lawmakers swept up in special prosecutor Pascoe’s probe.

State law protects pension member’s private records, the S.C. retirement agency said, and most lawmakers do not disclose their annual retirement benefits.

The formula used by the state retirement agency suggests the six lawmakers thus far implicated in the State House corruption probe stand to take home almost $200,000 a year in retirement pay.

▪  Former House Speaker Harrell, 61, was elected a state representative in 1992, eventually holding several leadership positions until he resigned in 2014. Harrell received about $41,000 in legislative pay in 2014, according to his last income filing for his House seat. That would make him eligible for more than $41,000 a year in retirement benefits, according to the state retirement agency’s formula.

▪  Former state Rep. Rick Quinn, 52, R-Lexington. Quinn, once House majority leader, was elected in 1988 and served until 2004 and, then, was elected again to the House in 2010. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of misconduct in office in December and resigned from office the same day.

Quinn was paid a legislative salary of $34,289 in 2016, according to his latest income filing. That would make him eligible for more than $38,000 a year in retirement benefits, based on the retirement agency’s formula.

▪  Former state Rep. Jim Merrill, 50, R-Berkeley. Merrill was elected in 2001 and formerly was the House majority leader. He resigned from office in August and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of misconduct in office in September.

Merrill was paid a salary of $22,400 in 2016, according to his latest income disclosure. He would receive more than $16,000 a year in retirement benefits, according to the state formula.

▪  Former state Rep. Jim Harrison, 66, R-Richland. Harrison was elected in 1988 but did not seek re-election in 2012. He was indicted last month on charges of criminal conspiracy, common law misconduct in office and statutory misconduct in office.

Harrison received $28,000 in legislative pay in 2012, according to the last income disclosure to list his House salary. He would make about $31,000 a year in retirement pay based on his years in the House, according to the state formula.

▪  Former S.C. House Rep. Tracy Edge, 50, R-Horry. Edge was elected in 1996 and did not seek re-election in 2014. He was indicted last month on charges of criminal conspiracy, common law misconduct in office, statutory misconduct in office and perjury.

Edge received $22,400 in legislative pay in 2013, according to his last income disclosure to list his S.C. House salary. He would receive more than $18,000 a year in retirement pay, according to the state formula.

▪  Suspended state Sen. John Courson, 72, R-Richland. Courson was elected in 1984. He was suspended in March after being charged with converting campaign money for his personal use and common law misconduct in office. Like Harrison and Edge, Courson is awaiting trial.

Courson received $25,426 in legislative pay in 2015, according to his latest income disclosure. He would be paid close to $40,000 a year in retirement benefits, according to the state formula

Question of ‘appetite’

Going after the health and dental benefits of guilty legislators would be a substantial penalty, Rep. Ballentine says.

“You can’t have politicians getting all sorts of benefits and then continue to rob taxpayers after they get in trouble.”

Government watchdog John Crangle said it seems like a good idea to take away certain retirement benefits from lawmakers who are convicted of crimes. But any proposal to do so likely would go nowhere in the Legislature, he predicted.

“I just don’t think there would be any appetite,” Crangle said.

In most corruption cases, lawmakers already can face jail time or a hefty fine, noted Crangle, now with the S.C. Progressive Network.

However, at least three other proposals, including two filed this month, would directly affect the wallets of lawmakers found guilty of wrongdoing and those who escalate their state retirement pay by taking other state jobs.

▪  State Sen. William Timmons, R-Greenville, has filed a bill to alter the state’s retirement system for lawmakers who leave office and take higher paying jobs in the public sector. His proposal would affect lawmakers – like former state Rep. Harrison – who leave elected office but then take another state job. Harrison, for example, took a $155,000-a-year job as state code commissioner with the Legislative Council.

“You can’t have legislators gaming the system,” Timmons said. “I just call it theft. It’s so terrible that they (lawmakers) think it’s OK to do. When you’re in Columbia for a long time, you apparently forget.”

▪  Under a proposal filed last March by state Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, elected officials who commit felonies while in office could be ordered to pay the cost of special elections required to fill their seats. Fanning’s proposal currently sits in a Senate subcommittee, awaiting a hearing.

▪  State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, filed a bill similar to Fanning’s proposal this month to require elected officials who are convicted or plead guilty to pay the cost of resulting special elections.

State Rep. Will Wheeler, D-Lee, the bill’s co-sponsor, said the proposal deserves debate when lawmakers return to Columbia in January, particularly after the resignation of two House members.

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter

Adding up SC lawmakers’ benefits

S.C. taxpayers pay retirement benefits for lawmakers who are forced from office by their wrongdoing. The state’s part-time lawmakers are paid:

  • $10,400: The annual salary S.C. lawmakers are paid. That salary is higher for lawmakers who hold leadership positions
  • $12,000: The amount each lawmaker is paid for expenses
  • $32,390: The amount the average lawmaker, who retires after 30 years in office, can make annually in retirement pay

SOURCE: S.C. Public Employee Benefit Authority