Friday, October 26, 2007

Guest Column in The State

Wearing many masks

By ROSS SHEALY - Guest Columnist

Disguise is the hallmark of the Halloween holiday.

Masked villains appear in “don’t-go-in-there” late-night television movies that are unearthed in an annual Halloween ritual. Storefronts go from humdrum to haunted — decked out in skeletons, cobwebs and bats. And, most importantly, children go door to door dressed as pirates, superheroes and a seemingly endless roster of Disney-inspired princesses.

But when you have to do it year-round, disguising yourself isn’t nearly as easy. If you don’t believe it, ask libertarian real estate tycoon Howard Rich.

Last Halloween, as the November elections approached, Rich was busy funding South Carolina legislative candidates through various limited-liability companies based in his New York apartment. Like a trick-or-treater who changes his mask and knocks again and again, Rich was skirting our state’s contribution limits in an effort to build a Legislature that would pass his voucher bill.

Also at this time last year, Rich had a handful of “grassroots” groups in various states, hoping that with the right name and the right Web site, the groups would blend into the local political landscape and promote his ideology as if it were local sentiment.

So one Halloween later, how is the year-round costume party holding up?

Not so well, actually.

Despite an infusion of more than $160,000 from his LLC’s and other companies into the campaign accounts of several South Carolina candidates, Rich still didn’t have the numbers in the General Assembly to promote his voucher agenda in the Palmetto State. Once again, in 2007, his Put Parents in Charge bill was defeated in the Legislature. Further, the biggest financial beneficiary of his dodgy funding scheme, superitendent [sic] of education candidate Karen Floyd, came up short in her bid for statewide office — despite more than $50,000 in contributions associated with Rich.

Not only is the LLC funding scheme proving not so effective, it may be in its dying days. Around the country, states are getting wise to this method of circumventing contribution limits. Colorado closed its LLC loophole in July, after 25 LLC’s owned by just two businessmen each gave the maximum contribution to a candidate for governor last year. Earlier this month, a Baltimore businessman was slapped with a $119,000 fine by Maryland authorities for using 20 corporations for which he was the sole stockholder to pump more than $100,000 into statewide political campaigns.

But for all the trouble, cloaking political contributions under the names of various LLC’s still seems to be Howard Rich’s primary mode of operation. In the last few months, Rich has used at least seven of his LLC’s to inject $60,000 into legislative races in Louisiana, where his latest school voucher group has been established.

So what about the other aspect of Rich’s masquerade ball, the “grass-roots” groups he fields around the country?

In Missouri, the group was called “Missourians in Charge,” a name that might lead you to believe that the strings were pulled by, well, Missourians. In fact, Howard Rich funneled more than $2.3 million into the group through various national funds he controls, while actual Missourians donated only $150. Missourians in Charge was dissolved earlier this year, less than 12 months after its creation, after failing to petition two measures onto the Missouri ballot.

Oklahoma has been even less hospitable to its Rich-funded “grass-roots” organization, “Oklahomans in Action.” Last year, a national fund chaired by Rich paid 97 percent of the bills for Oklahomans in Action. But instead of putting actual Okies “in action” to gather signatures for its initiatives, the group used migrant out-of-state workers, contrary to state law. Earlier this month, the president of Oklahomans in Action was indicted on two felony counts — conspiracy to defraud the state and filing a fraudulent initiative petition.

And, in Montana, the state attorney general is investigating the finances of a group called “Montanans in Action,” after that group’s ballot initiatives were invalidated last year due to “pervasive fraud.” Most analysts, and even Montana’s governor, suspect Howard Rich is behind the group.

Here in South Carolina, Rich’s main affiliate, South Carolinians for Responsible Government, doesn’t seem to be doing much better than its counterparts around the country. While SCRG has spent millions trying to convince us that South Carolinians are bitterly divided about vouchers, a recent Furman report reveals that South Carolinians are largely united behind commonsense, real reforms in our schools, and that there is little support in the public at large for diverting public money to private schools through vouchers.

The upshot of all of this, I guess, is that it’s not easy to fake it. It’s hard work, even for a millionaire.

So this Halloween, whether you dress up as coach Steve Spurrier, the Lizard Man of Lee County or the latest Disney princess, go all out. Remember that the best costumes are made, not bought, and be thankful that whatever costume you choose, you only have to wear it one night a year.

Mr. Shealy is the writer of the Barbecue & Politics blog, He lives in Cayce with his wife and kids.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Guest column in The State

Fishy grassroots work for vouchers

By ROSS SHEALY - Guest Columnist

Does it seem to you that there’s a ton of “grassroots” organizations vouching for the Put Parents in Charge private school tax credit plan lately?

There’s the “South Carolina Center for Grassroots and Community Alternatives.” Then there’s the “Southern Association of Black Independent Schools.” And there’s an entity calling itself “Clergy for Educational Options.”

Seems like an impressive array of independent, noticeably African-American groups, all in support of the latest iteration of Put Parents in Charge. Right?

It seems that way, but with the out-of-state voucher lobby, things are hardly ever what they seem.

It all sounded a little fishy from the get-go, these new groups emerging to promote a voucher scheme that most of South Carolina’s black leaders soundly reject. Only one member of the Legislative Black Caucus supported the latest private school tax credit plan, and his seat was practically purchased outright for that purpose. Rep. Curtis Brantley, D-Beaufort, received a stunning 84 percent of his campaign funds from out of state last year. He used this flood of voucher cash to win by fewer than 200 votes.

Sensing that something was awry, I decided to check out these new, seemingly independent voucher groups.

According to the S.C. Secretary of State Web site, C.E.O. and the Southern Association of Black Independent Schools registered as nonprofits in 2005. Both registered from the same address: 1620 Gervais Street, Suite B.

1620 Gervais, Suite B, must have been an awfully congested place to work in 2005. In addition to these two groups, the office was the address of the Center for Grassroots and Community Alternatives. It was also the address of South Carolinians for Responsible Government, the main proponent of the voucher agenda in South Carolina.

Four “independent” voucher groups all sharing the same office? That doesn’t seem very independent at all. In fact, I’m pretty sure under Utah law they’d be considered married.

But it wasn’t a lack of money that made 1620 Gervais, Suite B, as crowded as a clown car in 2005. According to tax records, more than $1 million was poured into SCRG — and almost a half million dollars more into the Center for Grassroots — in 2005.

So where’d all this voucher cash come from?

That’s the $1.5 million question.

At first blush, SCRG’s earliest tax filing, from 2004, seems to feature a glaring error. Although the organization’s address is accurate (1620 Gervais St, Suite B), the group’s phone number is listed as one in the 847 area code.

If you don’t recall “847” being a South Carolina area code, that’s because it isn’t. The phone number belonged to Howard Rich’s U.S. Term Limits organization, headquartered in Illinois.


Millionaire real estate developer Howard Rich, as you may know, is a New York libertarian who almost singlehandedly bankrolls the voucher faction in South Carolina. Last year, Rich spent more than any other entity funding Palmetto State candidates.

Howard Rich spent $166,000 on legislative seats and statewide elections in 2006 — far more than Blue Cross Blue Shield, Bell South, the S.C. Truckers Association or any other company or trade group with actual ties to our state. Rich gets around our state’s contribution limits by funding candidates through various entities that he controls: Bayrich LLC, Bradford Management, Dayrich LLC, Ashborough Investors, Spooner LLC, Spinksville LLC — these are just a few of the corporations Rich uses to exploit our campaign finance law.

Three sitting legislators, Reps. Mick Mulvaney, Jim Harrison and Kit Spires, received at least $9,000 — many times the legal limit from one person — from these numerous LLC’s last year. Superintendent of education candidate Karen Floyd received more than $50,000 from this dodgy funding scheme.

These phenomenal figures don’t even include thousands in contributions from the pro-voucher “S.C. Club for Growth,” which Rich oversees as president of “Club for Growth State Action” (with the same 847 phone number).

All this brings us back to the voucher groups from Suite B. Are all of these groups actual “independent” voices for vouchers? Or does Howard Rich thinks he can outwit the average South Carolinian the same way he flaunts our state’s campaign laws, with a barrage of seemingly independent groups that are actually all part of the same hydra-headed creature?

It’s a question that probably answers itself, but here’s a hint: SCRG and the Center for Grass Roots have since moved across town, to a shared office at 3020 Devine St. — the same address as the S.C. Club for Growth.

The average voter doesn’t have the time or inclination to follow the breadcrumbs — the shared long-distance phone numbers, the shared offices, the bewildering funding scheme — to arrive at the true origin of the private school voucher lobbying groups.

But give us Sandlappers some credit. It’s easy to see that the only voices vouching for the Howard Rich’s school voucher agenda are those groups created to do just that.

Mr. Shealy publishes Barbecue & Politics, available online at He lives in Cayce with his wife and kids.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

"Ryan's Bill" becomes law

Greenville News:

The state House stood and applauded today after voting 114-0 to override Gov. Mark Sanford's veto of a bill requiring insurance coverage for autistic children.

Earlier, the Senate voted to override as well, and advocates called it "a momentous day" for children with autism and their families…

"How often has there been a unanimous override in the House and the Senate?" said Dr. Desmond Kelly, medical director of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at Greenville Hospital System's Children's Hospital. "The legislators were clear in their support, and that's great."

Spartanburg Herald-Journal:

The Legislature also overrode Sanford's veto of a bill that would require insurance companies to provide coverage for children with autism. After the House overturned the veto by a 114-0 vote, Rep. Jimmy Bales, D-Eastover, looked at the tally board and with a grin said, "Now that's an override."

Monday, March 12, 2007