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.