This is the latest in a continuing series on the ethics scandal that is unfolding in our state.
After World War II, a fierce but civil rivalry developed between Birmingham and Atlanta as to which would become the unofficial Capital of the South.
Founded in 1871, Birmingham was a coal and steel town with much of the ownership of the principal industries being in Pittsburg and other northern cities. The symbol of the city was and is a large statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and the forge. In 1950, the city’s population was 326,000.
Atlanta was founded in 1837 as a railroad junction and was known as the crossroads of people, commerce and ideas. The Atlanta newspaperman Henry Grady coined the term New South. In 1885, a local former Confederate Cornel name James Pemberton invented Coca Cola and his partner Asa Candler and his dependents led the growth of Coke to become a global brand. In 1950, the city’s population was 333,000.
Then came the defining issue for not only Atlanta and Birmingham but the South and the nation as a whole – the issue of race. How these two cities dealt with this issue defined their future.
Bull Connor, police dogs, firehoses and violence became the image of Birmingham. The out of state economic ‘big mules’ cared more about their profits than Birmingham’s image or the city’s people and they let the Bull Connor crowd do what they pleased.
In Atlanta, the local economic leaders and Mayor Ivan Allen proclaimed Atlanta as ‘the city too busy to hate.’ Birmingham jailed Martin Luther King; Atlanta held a dinner in his honor when he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
And, therein lay all the difference. Today, Birmingham’s population is 1.1 million and Atlanta’s is 8.3 million.
And in South Carolina too, the business community has played a key role in our ongoing struggle with race. In 1959, Jackie Robinson used the white waiting room at Greenville airport and his treatment by police caused a national incident. To avoid another black eye in the national media, the local business community stepped in and acted. It was again the business community of Greenville that pushed through making Martin Luther King Day an official holiday.
And, after the Emanuel Nine shooting, it was the state’s business community that aggressively and visibly pushed Gov. Haley and the legislature to take down the Confederate flag. Many Southern states and companies nationally saw what we did and followed our lead.
Some would argue that race is a ‘special case’ and the lessons don’t apply to other issues. Ask the people and businesses of North Carolina.
In the 2012 election, a far-right governor and extremist legislature were elected. They have passed a whole agenda of right wing legislation culminating in March 2016 with House Bill 2 – the ‘bathroom bill’ seeking to dictate use of bathrooms by transgender people.
The bill set off a firestorm of reaction from national and global business, sports teams, film companies, entertainers, etc. who protested and immediately boycotted the state. The Associated Press estimated that HB 2 cost the state $3.76 billion.
As Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a good reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”
All indications are that South Carolina is at the beginning of a major ethics scandal. The key questions are: How far and how high will it go? And, what will be the long-term impact on our state?
Time and the courts will answer to the first question and the answer to the second question is playing out now…right now, today.
Solicitor David Pascoe is leading the investigation and one indication of the possible size and scope of the scandal is that he recently added three more solicitors to his team of prosecutors. Thus, today five out of a total of sixteen prosecutors in the state are working on the case.
So far, the scandal has brought down Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, former Majority Leader of the House Jim Merrill and Senator John Courson. Perhaps dozens of others are lying awake at night with the cold sweats.
At the center of the scandal are Richard and Rick Quinn and their extensive business and consulting dealings. Clients of the Quinns and Merrill that have been identified in news reports and legal documents include: Gov. Henry McMaster, Sen. Lindsay Graham, Attorney General Alan Wilson, more than a dozen members of the legislature, the University of South Carolina, the State Ports Authority, SCANA, the Hunley Museum and former President Pro Tem of the Senate and current College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell, the SC Association of Realtors, the Charleston Visitors Bureau and a number of companies.
There will surely be many more to come and the questions of their guilt or innocence will be played out in the media for months and even years to come.
This ethics scandal is hurting us today. The damage that is being done is both seen and unseen. Probably the greatest damage we never hear about. States and companies operate today in an incredibly competitive environment. Decision makers on the other side of the country or even the globe are deciding everyday about what companies they want to do business with, where to invest, where they will create new jobs, etc.
A single news story passed around via email can and does have a profound and immediate impact. Decision makers ask themselves, “Do I want to do business in a state that tolerates this kind of corruption? If I do, will someone come after me in some sort of sleazy shake down?”
Many will respond, “Why take the chance.”
So, what can the South Carolina business community do?
The answer is a lot. I believe the business community’s role in cleaning up the ethics scandal can be decisive. Here’s how:
The S.C. business community – individually and collectively – commits to doing something.
Then develop a tough ethics package and call for a single up or down vote by the legislature on the whole package. At a minimum, it should require all legislators and political appointees to: a) annually release their income tax returns, b) if they have a business, prohibit them from doing business with any state or local government entity and release the names and dollar ranges of all of their clients above a reasonable dollar amount, c) sign a pledge to refrain from doing business with or lobbying local, county or state governments while in office and for five years afterwards, and d) all of the above should be made publicly available online.
The major business organizations should come together and sign on their support. The S.C. Chamber, S.C. Manufactures’ Association, Palmetto Business Forum, S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce should be the core leadership. They should pass a resolution in support of the reform plan and encourage local chambers and individual business and community leaders to sign on their support.
Prove they mean it. This leadership group should announce they are committing a minimum of $1 million for a war chest to support or defeat legislators based on their support for the reform package. Legislators will quickly get the message.
South Carolina’s Future
Do these image and ethics issues really impact business? Do they have a significant and long term impact on a city or state? Or, is this all just fuzzy headed, pie in the sky moralizing?
Ask businesses in Birmingham, Atlanta and North Carolina.
We as a state now face two interrelated questions:
What will be our message and image be to the nation, even the world, about what kind of state we are?
And, will South Carolina’s business community act decisively?
It’s an open question – and our state’s future may depend on the answers.
Phil Noble has a technology firm in Charleston, is Co-founder of EnvisionSC and writes a weekly column for the S.C. Press Association. Contact him at email@example.com and get his columns at www.PhilNoble.com.