In wake of Statehouse corruption probe, lawmaker looks to expand definition of 'lobbyist'

The long-running investigation into corruption at the S.C. Statehouse revealed the myriad ways outside groups and companies can wield political influence on the legislative process.

Emails uncovered by special prosecutor David Pascoe highlighted how the powerful Quinn family, including longtime strategist Richard Quinn and now-former state Rep. Rick Quinn, worked behind the scenes to boost the interests of the Quinn firm's clients in the General Assembly.

Now several lawmakers are examining ways to close some loopholes they believe allowed the Quinns' operation to slip through the cracks for so long.

One example is a proposal from state Sen. William Timmons, R-Greenville, that would expand the definition of a lobbyist.

Under current law, only lobbyists who have "direct" communication with lawmakers about legislation are required to register their activities. Timmons wants to amend that law to include "indirect" lobbying.

"If we expand the scope of those that have to report their activities, we could have avoided some of the issues that came up," Timmons said.

Longtime government watchdog John Crangle said Timmons will be pressed to define what exactly falls within the bounds of indirect lobbying or risk lawyers quibbling with the definition in court.

Citing the Quinns as a prime example, Timmons said what he hopes to target is when large companies that already have lobbyists also hire firms partly run by legislators to help them with public relations, effectively enlisting them in the cause.

The question, Crangle said, will be whether the Quinns' operation was an anomaly or an indication of broader problems.

"There is a problem with lobbying, I just don't know whether what the Quinns were doing extends beyond them or not," Crangle said. "I don't know if anybody else has been able to do it in a systematic way like they did."

In another bill, Timmons is hoping to provide additional funds for the state Ethics Commission, the agency tasked with enforcing infractions. He argued the agency is understaffed and does not have enough teeth to go after lawmakers that cross the line.

"Right now, it's not even like the fox is guarding the hen house," Timmons said. "Nobody is guarding the hen house."

The measure would require candidates to commit 1 percent of their campaign donations to interest-bearing bank accounts that would then go toward bolstering the ethics commission. Timmons hopes the allocation can grow the agency's budget by as much as $400,000 a year.

The Statehouse has come under increased scrutiny for corruption before, most notably after the FBI's Operation Lost Trust string exposed rampant misconduct in the 1990s.

Crangle said a significant difference this time around is that the issue has seeped into the race for governor, with candidates battling to prove that they will come down hardest on misconduct in state government.

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