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.