NY millionaire gave big money to SC candidates for Legislature

Gifts given to candidates who would promote state’s school choice bill

jself@thestate.comJanuary 14, 2013 

  • Failed to win Senate seat

Opponents of two Republican state senators received $45,000 from corporations tied to New York millionaire real-estate investor and school-choice advocate Howard Rich immediately before the November election.

Groups tied to Rich also gave another $108,000 to at least 19 other candidates for the General Assembly, all Republicans except for state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston.

Joe Thompson, who ran against state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, and Rex Rice, who ran against state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, received $25,000 and $20,000, respectively, from several limited liability corporations sharing the same Philadelphia address tied to Rich, according to campaign contribution reports filed with the S.C. Ethics Commission last week.

The Philadelphia address is for the Center for Independent Thought, a nonprofit conservative foundation. Rich’s wife, Andrea Millen Rich, is the center’s president.

Since 2008, Rich’s affiliated groups also have given at least $341,000 to S.C. legislators and candidates for the General Assembly.

Most of the legislators who received donations from the Rich-affiliated groups during that period supported a school-choice bill last year that passed the S.C. House but died in the state Senate. That bill would have given tax deductions to parents who enroll their children in private school or home school them. That proposal also would have given tax credits to businesses or people donating to organizations providing scholarships to low-income students.

Rich said in April that he had no property in the South Carolina and did not stand to benefit from the bill’s passage. He said he supports candidates in many states.

State law limits the amount an individual or corporation can give a candidate to $1,000 per election cycle, meaning a candidate who runs in a primary, runoff and general election could get $3,000 from a donor in one year. Rich’s use of his separately incorporated companies allows him to sidestep that limit.

Thompson, a York County petition candidate who challenged Hayes in the District 15 state Senate race, raised more than $35,600 in 11 days in October, including $25,000 from 25 different corporations tied to Rich.

A manager of a Clover store specializing in racing fuels, Thompson is founder and president of the District 5 Patriots Tea Party group. Thompson entered the District 15 race after the June primaries.

During the campaign, Thompson called for ethics reforms and an end to the “good ol’ boy” network of long-serving politicians, including Hayes, then-chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee.

Significant contributions

Rice, an Easley Republican and former S.C. House member who ran against Martin in the District 2 state Senate race, raised $20,000 from 20 of the same corporations that gave to Thompson.

The contributions from the Rich-affiliated corporations made up at least half of Thompson’s and Rice’s total reported contributions for the election.

Hayes, who won 74 percent of the vote to defeat Thompson in November, said Monday that the Rich-affiliated contributions were an “obvious method ... to get around the thousand-dollar limit.”

Thompson and Rich were unavailable Monday.

Rice, who lost to Martin 35 percent to 64 percent, said he did not know who was behind the contributions he received, but he thinks they came from “people on the national level realizing that the federal government obviously needs correcting” who “believe that the way to bring this country back is to start at the local level.”

Hayes and Martin, chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, are among a handful of senators who were accused of holding up the school-choice bill last year. Both say they are advocates of working within the public school system to provide parents with choice.

Hayes has criticized the school-choice bill, saying it would have cost the state millions with no clear way of paying for it – a sentiment echoed by Martin on Monday.

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