Surprise, surprise! New York millionaire Howard Rich is meddling in South Carolina’s state elections again.
During last year’s legislative elections, state Sens. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, and Larry Martin, R-Pickens, were targeted by hazy political action committees and unidentified donors with thousands of dollars in donations to their opponents. While origins of much of the PAC money might never be known because of weak state requirements governing the identification of who is behind the PACs, we do know that groups associated with Rich dumped at least $153,000 on 21 candidates for the General Assembly.
All but one were Republicans.
The lone Democrat was state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, a vocal proponent of school choice.
But while we know all that now, we didn’t know it during the campaign, when the information might have affected how people voted. Because of a state policy that delays reporting of donations, the public has not been made aware of Rich’s role in the 2012 campaign until nearly two and a half months after the election.
And Rich’s role was significant. Joe Thompson, who ran against Hayes, received $25,000 from 25 limited liability corporations sharing the same Philadelphia address tied to Rich. Martin’s opponent, Rex Rice, received $20,000 from the same sources.
The Philadelphia address is for the Center for Independent Thought, a nonprofit conservative foundation. Rich’s wife, Andrea Millen Rich, is the center’s president.
One of the primary goals of the group is the promotion of state financed vouchers or tax breaks for those who send their children to private schools.
Since 2008, Rich’s affiliated groups have given at least $341,000 to S.C. legislators and candidates for the General Assembly.
Both Hayes and Martin, chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, opposed a school-choice bill last year that would have given tax deductions to parents who enrolled their children in private school or home schooled them. Both senators have advocated working within the public school system to provide more options for students.
Ultimately, both won their races handily. Hayes won 74 percent of the vote to defeat Thompson in November.
Nonetheless, Rich’s attempts to skirt spending limits to influence these and other races are an affront to openness in the system.
As lawmakers review ways to improve the state’s ethics rules, they also need to look at fine-tuning campaign donor laws to make all donations more transparent, to require that donations be reported well before Election Day and to prevent people such as Rich from using loopholes to sidestep donation limits.
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