September 1, 2014

Ethics Commission rules Columbia mayor did not have to report Florida trip


Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin (File)

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin (File)

The State Ethics Commission ruled Wednesday that Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin did not have to report a Florida trip he took with his former business partner who was later convicted on corruption charges.

During their meeting Wednesday, ethics commissioners unanimously agreed with arguments from Benjamin’s attorney that the 2010 trip was not part of the mayor’s job — but was instead related to his friendship and business dealings with disgraced ex-SC State University trustee Jonathan Pinson. A jury found Pinson guilty last month on 29 counts, including racketeering and theft of government funds.

During Pinson’s trial, federal prosecutors revealed a trip to Orlando that Pinson had taken with Mayor Benjamin in December 2010. That trip was purportedly to meet with Florida developer Richard Zahn, who was in negotiations with Pinson at the time to sell 120 acres of land to S.C. State (Zahn pleaded guilty last year to wire fraud after prosecutors said he agreed to pay kickbacks to Pinson and other S.C. State employees as part of the deal).

Ethics Commission staff began questioning the trip after it was revealed Zahn paid for the flight, a limo, dinner, and a trip to a strip club. State law requires an elected official to disclose any gifts they receive if the gift was believed to be given because of the official’s position or in hopes of seeking a contractual, business, or financial relationship with the city. Benjamin did not list the items on his Statement of Economic Interest.

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New House committee formed to tackle domestic violence

SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell announced Wednesday he has created a special ad hoc committee that will be tasked with finding ways to end South Carolina’s status as the nation’s highest rate for women murdered by men.

The Special Criminal Domestic Violence Ad Hoc Committee had its first organizational meeting Wednesday afternoon.

Harrell named the ad hoc domestic violence committee after the Charleston Post & Courier ran a series of articles detailing serious legal and cultural problems that cause the rate of women killed by men in South Carolina to be nearly double the national rate.

The articles noted that 14 pieces of legislation have been proposed in the Statehouse concerning domestic violence in the last two years. But only one of those measures passed– dealing with custody of pets that may be caught up in the situation.

Committee chair State Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, said the panel will hear from experts, stakeholders, and the public to see if criminal laws could be toughened or the law enforcement and legal system improved to help reduce the violence. Erickson said she hoped the committee would be able to recommend comprehensive reform, not piecemeal changes. [Read more...]

SC House returns for one-day session

SC House of Representatives (FILE)

SC House of Representatives (FILE)

The South Carolina House of Representatives will return to Columbia for one afternoon Wednesday as they consider whether or not to override two of Gov. Nikki Haley’s vetoes.

Haley issued the vetoes just before the regular session ended in June for a bill that would make it a misdemeanor for repeated disruptors to enter a library and local legislation that raises the property tax cap on residents of Murrells Inlet and Surfside Beach to pay for fire control. While the Senate easily overrode both vetoes, the House never took them up before leaving for the year.

It will take a two-thirds majority to override the governor.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell decided to call the chamber in for the one-day session after saying a consensus was reached at a legislative retreat a few weeks ago.

Legislators are also holding a few study committee meetings Wednesday on expungement and school safety.

House members each receive $176 to cover meals and lodging for the day, plus mileage reimbursement.

Rubio heckled during Anderson BBQ speech

Marco Rubio (File)

Marco Rubio (File)

Florida Senator Marco Rubio spoke to Republicans in Anderson Monday night as he considers a run for president in 2016. But the appearance at the Faith and Freedom BBQ didn’t go quite as planned.

Several protestors at the Anderson Civic Center interrupted Rubio several times during his speech before being escorted out by security guards. Many of the more than 1,000 people in attendance booed the group, who were heckling the senator for dropping his previous support of an immigration reform package.

Rubio, whose own parents legally emigrated from Cuba in 1956, said he sympathized with the protestors. “Every single year one million human beings immigrate legally to the United States of America,” he said, according to FOX Carolina. “There is no other country that does that. This is a sovereign country that deserves to have immigration laws.”

CNN’s Peter Hemby reports the heckling may have actually benefitted Rubio in front of the conservative audience. The senator had lost some of his popularity among Republicans who saw his support for an immigration reform package as amnesty. Rubio helped craft the bipartisan immigration bill that passed in the Senate but stalled in the House as Republican leaders blocked it.

Rubio was the keynote speaker at the fourth annual Faith & Freedom BBQ, which was hosted by South Carolina Congressman Jeff Duncan. Other Republicans who spoke at the event included Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Some SC sheriffs defend military surplus program

Columbia Police drove their recently-acquired MRAP during city's Veterans Day parade last year

Columbia Police drove their recently-acquired MRAP during the city’s Veterans Day parade last year

Last week, President Obama ordered a review of a Pentagon program that supplies surplus military equipment at greatly reduced rates to local law enforcement agencies around the country.

The president asked for the evaluation of the Defense Logistics Services Agency program after a public outcry against police tactics during protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The federal program has provided $4.3 billion worth of armored trucks, “assault” rifles, and other military equipment since 1997 has become scrutinized.

But some law enforcement agencies insist they need such equipment in extreme circumstances against heavily-armed criminals. Newberry County Sheriff Lee Foster said he still has memories of a 2003 standoff outside the town of Abbeville, when a family protesting a road construction project killed a state constable, shot an Abbeville County deputy, and held officers at bay for 14 hours as they unsuccessfully tried to rescue the mortally wounded deputy.

“They had to improvise to get the officer out that had been shot and wounded, because nobody in that area had anything that could withstand the onslaught they were facing,” Foster said.

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