A contested legislative election for a seat on the University of South Carolina’s board of trustees kicked into high gear this week when a registered lobbyist began making inquiries on behalf of one of the candidates.
Adding a layer of controversy to the mix? The lobbyist in question is the son of a sitting state lawmaker … which raises additional ethical questions.
On Sunday, registered lobbyist Lander Hiott – who represents several associations and corporations at the S.C. State House – began contacting lawmakers on behalf of former National Basketball Association (NBA) star Alex English. Specifically, Hiott notified these lawmakers that he was bringing English to the S.C. State House this week for meetings and hoped he could count on their support for the former’s candidacy at the “appropriate time.”
Lawmakers are allowed to pledge their votes to candidates in this race at 12:00 p.m. EST today (February 22, 2021).
Hiott is the son of state representative Davey Hiott of Pickens, S.C. – the chairman of the House agriculture, natural resources and environmental affairs committee. The elder Hiott has represented S.C. House District 4 (.pdf) since 2005.
English, 67, was appointed as a South Carolina trustee last year by Republican governor Henry McMaster after board member William Hubbard stepped down to lead the university’s law school. His candidacy for a full, four-year term on the board is reportedly being backed by retired U.S. Army general Robert Caslen, the school’s president.
Caslen hasn’t formally endorsed English, and sources close to the university president say he is “careful not to get involved” in the politicking associated with board of trustee races.
However, Caslen has been accused of supporting English behind the scenes because the former Gamecock basketball star backs renaming the Strom Thurmond Wellness And Fitness Center on the university’s downtown Columbia, S.C. campus.
Named in 2003 after the late U.S. senator Strom Thurmond – a prominent supporter of segregation during the 1960s – the building has been the focus of a renaming campaign in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota last Memorial Day.
Caslen has not endorsed changing the name of “the Strom,” but he has formed a panel to study the issue and make recommendations.
Lawmakers have told us privately that this issue has put the university president on a “collision course” with the legislature.
Also running for this seat is Robert Dozier, a Columbia, S.C. banker who is a past president of the school’s alumni association. According to our sources, Dozier is “keen on undertaking a top-to-bottom review of the university’s finances in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
A third candidate, Kevin Hunter of Irmo, S.C., is also in the mix. Like Dozier, Hunter is committed to imposing some long-overdue fiscal accountability on the institution.
“My goal is to help the board break the political messes of the past, right the financial ship and bring a focus on supporting our communities through action not discussions, focus groups or studies,” Hunter told us.
State lawmakers have routinely threatened to oust university trustees over their poor stewardship of the school in recent years … yet they continue to reappoint them.
Will that trend continue with English?
While the three candidates jockey for position, Hiott’s involvement has left lawmakers scratching their heads.
“Just … why?” one legislator told us upon being informed of the development.
Also, Hiott’s colleagues began raising questions about whether the veteran lawmaker would abstain from voting in the trustee election given his son’s lobbying efforts – or take steps to ensure there was no suspicion that he may be leveraging his legislative leadership position on English’s behalf.
As noted previously, this news outlet’s founding editor Will Folks does not take positions in legislative elections owing to his longstanding support for the privatization of higher education in the Palmetto State (and beyond).
“Higher education must be immediately and permanently privatized,” he wrote in 2018. “No more government appropriations, period. Furthermore, student loans in this country must be issued based on what the market determines to be an acceptable level of risk, not a federal guarantee. Anything short of this will only add more destructive force to a ticking time bomb that has become an existential threat to the American economy.”
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