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Hugh Leatherman’s $1 Million Gas Tax Conspiracy

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THE ANATOMY OF AN INSIDER SHAKEDOWN … 

South Carolina’s “Godfather of Pork” was angry …

Accustomed to calling the shots in Palmetto politics with nobody standing in his way (or even really questioning his authority), the 2016 session of the S.C. General Assembly had been most unkind to Hugh Leatherman.

The diminutive liberal leader appeared to be losing his grip … his aura of invincibility fading almost as fast as his declining health.

Pro-free market S.C. Senator Tom Davis – for the second year in a row – had successfully filibustered a proposed increase in the state’s gasoline tax championed by Leatherman and his liberal allies.

This totally unnecessary tax hike was expected to breeze through the fiscally-liberal Republican General Assembly – but Davis blocked it.

Not only that, a constitutionally-questionable borrowing bill advanced by Leatherman was successfully modified by Davis and S.C. Senator Harvey Peeler – steering money away from a glorified slush fund controlled by Leatherman (one that funds all sorts of unnecessary projects).

The Godfather was embarrassed.

Fast-forward to December – a cold afternoon in Columbia, S.C. just before the holiday break.

Inside Leatherman’s Senate office, located on the grounds of the S.C. State House, revenge was plotted.  Multiple leaders of the state’s so-called “business community” – crony capitalists to a person – were “summoned” to appear before the most powerful politician in South Carolina.

“The business community cannot sit on the sidelines,” Leatherman told the crony capitalists, referring to the looming debate over the gasoline tax.

Leatherman told the group – seated in a semi-circle around him – were implored to call lawmakers and press them to support the tax hike.

There was another ask, though.

(Click to view)

(Via Travis Bell Photography)

According to multiple sources who attended the meeting, these business leaders were then instructed to collectively pony up anywhere from $750,000 to $1 million in support of a “public outreach” campaign – one which would be run by Leatherman’s liberal consultants, notably status quo GOP operative Bob McAlister.

In fact McAlister, with Leatherman sitting across the room from him, quoted these specific amounts to the group.

The specific language used by Leatherman in making his “ask” of these entrenched special interests is up for debate.  Different people heard his request differently – and all have been exceedingly cautious in their recollections of the conversation.

But the basic premise is undeniable – and undeniably corrupt.

The most powerful man in South Carolina demanded an audience with the state’s business leaders (several of them representing lobbyist principals) and basically told them they needed to raise and spend up to $1 million to pass a gas tax hike.

And not only that, to use his consultants for the upcoming campaign …

If that isn’t a shakedown, we don’t know what is.

Has this envisioned effort taken shape?  McAlister – who allegedly attended the meeting with Leatherman – refused to respond to our requests for comment regarding his role in this shakedown.

McAlister’s aide, Dave Wilson (who also attended the meeting, we’re told), similarly refused to answer several simple, specific questions about the secret gathering – and the campaign it was intended to launch.

Fortunately, we know enough about what happened that we don’t need to hear from them … although as we noted in a previous post about another scandal involving McAlister, we will certainly publish any responses that are forthcoming.

(Click to view)

(Via Travis Bell Photography)

According to our sources, Leatherman’s “Gas Tax Conspiracy” meeting was attended by multiple special interests representing crony capitalist organizations – including several lobbyist principals (i.e. organizations that directly lobby members of the S.C. General Assembly).

One key attendee at the event was Barbara Melvin – chairperson of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce and vice president of operations and terminals for the woefully-mismanaged S.C. State Ports Authority (SCSPA).

Melvin’s state agency has been busted previously over some shady financial dealings with McAlister.  More relevant to this story, it is naming its new container terminal after Leatherman, ostensibly owning to his willingness to let the agency keep tens of millions of state tax dollars it received in 2012 for a dubious dredging project (one that now has federal support).

You better believe she came when she was called …

Melvin told us she attended the meeting in her capacity as the chairperson of the state chamber’s board.  Chamber leaders did not immediately respond to our request for comment regarding her attendance.

Also wasting no time in answering Leatherman’s summons?  Lewis Gossett, head of the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance – another lobbyist principal that benefits directly from Leatherman’s … err, government’s support of its so-called “economic development” efforts.

Ned Johnson, an attorney with the influential McNair law firm, also attended the meeting.  Johnson was reportedly there representing the Palmetto Business Forum, a liberal crony capitalist group that has been pushing lawmakers to raise the gas tax for years.

Pamela Lackey, president of AT&T in South Carolina and a member of numerous crony capitalist organizations, also attended.

These are the most influential business people in the Palmetto State – those who raise big dollars for politicians (including Leatherman).

(Click to view)

(Via Travis Bell Photography)

Shakedowns are nothing new to them, in other words – although the crassness of this particular appeal made some of those being shook down more than a little uncomfortable.

“I’ve been to a lot of those types of meetings – never been to one with a consultant sitting there asking me for money,” one of the business leaders who attended the event told us.

“I didn’t like being called over there – or what I was asked to do,” another said.

So … did these crony capitalists cough up the money they were asked for?  No … at least not yet.

“First of all we can’t raise what they asked for,” one of the business leaders told us, referring to the $750,000 figure quoted by Leatherman’s consultants.

Also, several probing questions were reportedly raised as to the efficacy of the proposed “pro-gas tax” campaign – which was rumored to include a barrage of television advertisements run in the Midlands area of the state when lawmakers were in town.

“Biggest waste of f*cking money I’ve ever heard of in my life,” one of the business leaders told us – adding that a previous plan proposed two years ago by McAlister and neo-Confederate consultant Richard Quinn cited a $500,000 figure for such advertisements.

That campaign – which included an estimated $50,000 for a public opinion poll – was never launched.  Why not?  Because business leaders didn’t trust that it would get the job done.

They have reservations about the current plan, too …

“I don’t think we should be doing this kind of public outreach at the moment,” one of the business leaders said.  “We don’t even know what the plan is.”

Other attendees say they were skeptical of the first proposal – and the polling data they were provided.

“They didn’t buy the presentation – they didn’t believe the poll numbers,” the business leader said, referring to their organization’s membership.  “I ran it up the flagpole – and nobody saluted.”

Ouch.

This website has consistently opposed gas tax increases.

State lawmakers have plenty of money to devote to any infrastructure needs – and beyond that, they have yet to address rampant corruption and incompetence within the S.C. Department of Transportation (SCDOT).

Even if South Carolina did require a gas tax hike to fund its infrastructure needs, its dirt poor citizens cannot afford one.  As we’ve repeatedly pointed out, motorists in the Palmetto State already pay a higher percentage of their income on fuel than motorists in any other state save Mississippi and West Virginia – which politicians and the mainstream media conveniently ignore when they refer to South Carolina as having the “lowest gas tax in America.”

We will continue to follow the gas tax issue as it makes its way through the legislature.  We will also continue to dig on this particular meeting and let our readers know what additional information we are able to uncover.

(Banner via iStock)

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