By Paul Gable
The machinations to get Alan Clemmons into the position of Horry County Master-in-Equity have skated along the very edge of state law during the entire process.
It would take a full investigation and the determination of a public prosecutor to decide whether the process actually stepped into the area of illegality, but there are enough questions to warrant such an investigation.
Either way, a study of the timeline of events, as well as the events themselves, demonstrate the way in which those in “the swamp”, (Donald Trump’s term for the political system that he said needed ‘sweeping ethics reform’ in order to “make our government honest once again”), works to advance the ambitions of the members in this group.
Clemmons won the state primary for nomination to his 10th term in office as a state representative for SC House District 107 on June 9, 2020.
On June 20, 2020, the SC Judicial Merit Selection Commission issued a media release announcing it was accepting applications for judicial offices named in the release. Included in that release was the statement, “A vacancy will exist in the office currently held by the Honorable Cynthia Graham Howe, Master in Equity, Horry County. The successor will serve a new term of that office, which will expire December 31, 2027.”
Four days later the JMSC issued a “Media Release Amended” in which the only change was removal of the advertisement for applications for the Horry County Master in Equity position. The chairman of the JMSC for 2020 was Horry County Sen. Luke Rankin.
An inquiry to the JMSC about the elimination of the Horry County position elicited the following email response, “JMSC issued a media release on June 20, 2020 announcing screening for Horry County Master in Equity (Judge Howe’s seat) and the successor to serve a new term to expire December 31, 2027. Since the new term would not begin until January 1, 2022, a subsequent media release was issued, deleting the seat from the 2020 screening.”
There were two problems with this response. First, according to SC Senate Journal records, Gov. Nikki Haley appointed then incumbent Horry County Master-in-Equity Cynthis Ward Howe to a six-year term ending July 31. 2021. Second, the Greenville Master-in-Equity position was advertised in both the original media release and amended media release. The term of incumbent Greenville Master-in-Equity was to end on December 31, 2021, according to both media releases.
Why, with the same advertised end of term date, would the Greenville position be handled differently from the Horry County position? Why weren’t both positions with the same advertised end of term date eliminated from the amended release?
Horry County state Sen. Luke Rankin was the Chairman of the JMSC in 2020, according to state records.
State law requires members of the General Assembly to be out of office for one year before they can begin the application process for a judicial appointment.
Clemmons resigned from his SC House seat on July 17, 2020. Because Clemmons had already won the regular primary for nomination for the November 2020 general election ballot, he had to send a sworn affidavit to the SC Election Commission stating his resignation was for “non-political reasons” in order for the Republican Party to hold a special primary election to name a new nominee.
Clemmons’ stated reasons, in the sworn affidavit, for resigning from his House seat were to spend more time with his family and to attend to the needs of new, large clients of his law firm, which would require substantial time.
Immediately after Clemmons’ resignation, this reporter questioned whether Clemmons’ resignation was due to his desire to seek the Horry County Master-in-Equity position.
According to the above referenced JMSC email response, the JMSC discovered the error in the end date of the Howe term in Spring 2021.
A JMSC media release of June 21, 2021 again advertised the position of Horry County Master-in-Equity as open for application. However, in this release, it was stated the new Master-in-Equity appointee would serve out the remainder of the current term of Judge Howe, which was now listed to expire on July 31, 2027.
There are no state records indicating how the expiration of Judge Howe’s term was changed from July 31, 2021 to July 31, 2027. In fact, this would have required Judge Howe to be appointed to a new six-year term with the attendant advertisement and application process, which never happened.
On July 27, 2021, TheNerve.org published a story that Clemmons had applied to be a candidate for the Horry County Master-in-Equity opening advertised by the JMSC on June 21, 2021. Note, this is just a few days over the one year threshold from Clemmons’ July 17, 2020 resignation from his House seat.
According to the story, The Nerve asked Clemmons if he resigned from his House seat in order to apply for the Master-in-Equity position. According to The Nerve story, Clemmons’ response was, “I really have no comments on my application for Master-in-Equity for Horry County.”
Clemmons and two other candidates from Horry County were deemed qualified for the position of Horry County Master-in-Equity by the JMSC in December 2021. The names of the qualifiers were sent to the Horry County Legislative Delegation. It was up to the delegation to vote on the candidates to determine which one would be recommended to the governor for appointment to the position.
In a 1996 ruling by the SC Supreme Court, it was held that a county legislative delegation is a public body under the SC Freedom of Information Act. As such, votes on official business must be done in an open, public meeting.
However, the Horry County Legislative Delegation ignored this ruling. Instead, the process it followed appears to be in direct violation of state law. The problem here is there is no real enforcement mechanism in the FOIA law to punish government officials who ignore it.
Sources familiar with the process told GSD that a determination was made that Clemmons had enough votes to win the delegation nomination. According to those sources, the two other candidates for the position were notified by telephone call that the ‘handwriting was on the wall’ for Clemmons to receive the nomination from the delegation and it would be best if they withdrew their applications. Both candidates withdrew, thereby giving the delegation an excuse to avoid an open vote.
A letter recommending Clemmons for nomination to the governor was reportedly circulated for signature among Horry County delegation members during regular proceedings of the General Assembly last week. According to the same Supreme Court decision, such circulation of letters must take place during a public meeting of the delegation and be open for members of the public to view the process and results.
In 2007, then Attorney General Henry McMaster issued an opinion that found state law did not allow the circulation of a letter among delegation members “as a substitute for a physical meeting.” It will now be interesting to see if now Gov. McMaster, another beneficiary of swamp largesse, abides by his own opinion by rejecting the nomination letter from the Horry County Legislative Delegation nominating Clemmons for appointment as Master-in-Equity.
Three members of the Horry County Legislative Delegation, Rep. Kevin Hardee, Rep. William Bailey and Sen. Greg Hembree did not sign the letter, therefore not voting for Clemmons.
The remainder of delegation members did sign the letter nominating Clemmons and here is where the swamp dwellers come to the fore.
Rep. Russell Fry, the recent Trump endorsee for the SC 7th Congressional District Republican Primary, voted for Clemmons despite Fry’s recent sound bites about being for the people. Fry, in a video, endorsed the lobbying efforts of the Grand Strand Business Alliance, a sister arm of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber and the GSBA are responsible for the pro-I-73 propaganda forced on Horry County citizens. The Chamber contributes to the GSBA PAC’s who support Chamber preferred candidates through third-party ads.
Far from trying to ‘Drain the Swamp’ as a Trump endorsee, Fry is dwelling solidly in the middle of it just going along to get along.
Rep. Tim McGinnis voted for Clemmons. McGinnis received major support in his 2017 special election campaign from “Citizens for Conservative Values”, an organization fully funded by the GSBA and whose ads and mailers were created and placed by an independent contractor heavily tied to the Chamber through the years.
Rep. Heather Crawford voted for Clemmons. Crawford once worked for Clemmons being paid $150,000 over a five-year period from Clemmons’ campaign funds. The word on the street is if Clemmons is ultimately appointed Horry County Master-in-Equity, he will hire Heather Crawford as a full-time employee of that office.
Rep. Case Brittain voted for Clemmons. Clemmons endorsed Brittain and joined Brittain’s handler Mark Lazarus in trying to keep other candidates from entering the race against Brittain in the special primary.
Rep. Jeff Johnson, whose western Horry County constituents do not benefit from the actions of the Chamber and its cabal cronies, voted for Clemmons. Johnson, a member of the JMSC as well as the local delegation but did not question the machinations in moving the Clemmons’ nomination forward. Why not? Will Johnson’s constituents be wondering what is the payoff for him?
Senators Luke Rankin and Stephen Goldfinch both voted for Clemmons. Clemmons campaigned heavily for Goldfinch in 2016 and Rankin in 2020, when they faced serious opposition, stepping over the line into stating complete falsehoods about the Goldfinch and Rankin opponents.
Rankin and Clemmons were major leaders in passing a state law that established and later extended the Tourism Development Fee, the only one-cent local option sales tax in South Carolina that was never approved by referendum of the general electorate. The TDF provides the Chamber upwards of $25 million annually in revenue. When combined with other government grants, the Chamber received approximately $45 million in public dollars in 2020. It leverages this public money through its website to generate private money, a portion of which goes to the GSBA PACs.
These politicians support the Chamber. The Chamber supports them. Most of the politicians in the local delegation support each other’s goals. Very little interest is taken by them in the needs of the constituents they are supposed to represent. And, worst of all, they truly don’t believe the law applies to them.
This effort to get Clemmons appointed as Horry County Master-in-Equity, by methods seemingly in violation of state law, is just the latest example of the swamp in action.