It’s an agency few have heard of, and even fewer know what it does.
But it’s set to take center stage in the Senate as a budget debate drags on for a fifth week.
It’s the South Carolina Commission on Prosecution Coordination (SCCPC) and, depending upon which legislator you ask, it’s either an important part of the state’s court system, or an unnecessary agency in disarray.
Several senators who fell in the latter camp were able to remove the agency’s funding from the state budget last week in a narrow 22-21 vote. However, several who voted to eliminate the funding (most notably Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler) now want to revisit the vote, saying they did not realize what they were voting for.
The SCCPC was created in 1990 by the Legislature. Its official function is to act as a “middleman” between the state’s 16 circuit courts and the Statehouse. The Commission itself is an 11-member board consisting of members of the Legislature and law enforcement, as well as five state solicitors. However, two of the solicitors’ positions are currently vacant until Governor Nikki Haley appoints new members. The board is responsible for determining necessary funding for each of the state’s circuit courts, as well as for drug courts.
The SCCPC also has a small staff that trains local prosecutors about any new laws and court decisions. It also has an administrative staff that liaisons between solicitors and legislators.
“You don’t need a hired gun”
However, the Commission had a rough year in 2010. While those on it will not go into detail about the controversy, Senator Jake Knotts (R-Lexington) said he sat through several meetings in that time. He said two members who are no longer on the commission—former solicitors Bob Ariail and Trey Gowdy—”disrupted” the day-to-day operations of the SCCPC.
The commission also fired its previous Executive Director William Bilton last year, but kept him on as a contract lobbyist because of his relationship with legislators.
It’s that move that has Knotts, a retired state investigator himself, fuming, saying solicitors don’t need a second “lobbyist” acting on their behalf.
You don’t need a hired gun to come up here as a lobbyist– who don’t even go in the courtroom– to explain the solicitor’s position. The solicitor himself is going to call you. So, why do they need lobbyists?
New Executive Director David Ross was hired in January and was not part of the controversy. He says the SCCPC serves an important role, and disputed the idea that he is a lobbyist.
Every agency has to have some kind of input with the General Assembly, or (legislators) will have no idea what they’re passing…Most members will tell you they want the input. So, what do you call that? Is that “lobbying,” or not? It’s not what the public thinks, which is taking people out to dinner, wining and schmoozing them. We’re not doing that.
Bilton is scheduled to leave after this year’s session ends. Knotts said he wants to know where the Commission came up with the money to hire him, since it was never allocated by the Legislature. He also questioned why the budget still includes $309,600 in salary and $110,600 in rent for four vacant offices, some of which have been open for two years.
“It’s in complete disarray,” Knotts said.
Knotts led the effort to eliminate the agency’s funding in next year’s budget. However, since the Commission is tasked with handling the local judicial circuits, the vote had the unintended effect of eliminating salaries for the state’s solicitors and their staffs. The massive outcry from their local courts caused Peeler and others to say they would reconsider their vote. Knotts said he plans to introduce an amendment Tuesday that would fund the solicitors directly, instead of through the SCCPC.
Ironically, Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett, who prosecutes cases in Union and York counties, said the vote showed how useful the commission is. Brackett, one of the three solicitors on the SCCPC, said he did not know about the effort to eliminate it until he found out from the Commission’s staff.
I spend my days in the courts of York and Union counties. I don’t have the time to keep track of everything that’s going on in the legislature. If I didn’t have somebody down there who could track this legislation… I don’t know to call my legislator. Because they don’t call me. They’re busy, too.
“Personalities and agendas” driving issue
If the funding is put back into the budget, it would be the second time this year that the SCCPC dodged an attempt by a Lexington legislator to change its structure. In March, some House Republicans tried to move the Commission under the state Attorney General’s control. Rep. Rick Quinn (R-Lexington) led the effort, saying several solicitors were “taking liberties” with drug court funding to put it into their home districts.
If you were on the Commission, you got a drug court in this (district), but you don’t get it in the other. I think there is a feeling that some of the solicitors that were on the Commission had become a little cavalier with the funds.
However, Rep. Tommy Pope (R-York) who was on the Commission until he was elected last November, said the Attorney General’s Office usually handles civil cases, rather than criminal.
He worries there may be “personalities and agendas” driving the issue.
The majority of the time the Commission acts in the best interest of the solicitors in total… We’re the white-hat guys. We’re on the course of trying to do what’s right. I think the concerns about the Commission have unfortunately been played out primarily among people who have an ax to grind. I think that’s unfortunate.
Nobody wanted to do away with the Commission last year… It was only after some personnel changes happened that this came up.
Pope said legislators should give the SCCPC’s new membership a chance, then eliminate it next year if the problems continue.
A vote to reconsider the agency’s funding is up for debate Tuesday.