COLUMBIA - Lawmakers made millions of dollars last year by representing clients in front of boards and commissions that the Legislature appoints. The lawyer legislators also earned fees by representing clients in court in front of judges they helped elect.
There is nothing unethical or illegal about the way the lawmakers earn their living, but at least one watchdog agency says it doesn't look good.
According to annual financial disclosure forms filed with the State Ethics Commission, seven senators and their law partners collected more than $1.3 million in fees in 2004 from clients with cases before state boards and agencies.
During the same period, 13 House members and their partners charged clients more than $1.1 million for similar services.
"There's no doubt that a member of the Legislature has some special status and prestige that helps him," said John Crangle, the state director of Common Cause, based in Washington, D.C.
For example, Sen. John Land, D-Manning, collected more than $830,000 in fees last year from workers' compensation cases.
Mr. Land has served in the General Assembly since 1975.
"In a way, it's good advertising for me," Mr. Land said of the fees he lists on his disclosure forms. "If you look at my forms, you'll see I do pretty well with workers' compensation."
Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Columbia, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said most of his clients don't even know he serves in the General Assembly.
"Except for maybe 10 percent of my clients, they've never heard of me before," said Mr. Harrison, who earned nearly $70,000 last year representing bars and restaurants seeking liquor licenses from the Department of Revenue.
While most lawmakers agree the potential for abuse is there, ethics rules created in 1991 were designed to reveal conflicts. In addition to reporting when they represent clients before state boards, members must abstain from voting on certain items if they have represented clients before the agencies.
"The biggest influence you could have is voting on an agency's budget, so that potential abuse is eliminated," Mr. Harrison said.
But some say the rules go too far.
State Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Harstville, who earned more than $100,000 representing clients in front of the state Workers' Compensation Commission last year, said all elected officials have a conflict of interest at some point.
"There's conflict amok in here," he said. "There's a lot of supporters of public education who have children in public schools. What would happen if everyone had to recuse themselves from votes dealing with schools?"
Some say they are more concerned about lawmakers' influence in courtrooms.
Although lawmakers elect the state's judges, they do not have to report fees they earn representing clients in courts. And they don't have to abstain from voting for - or even lobbying for the election of - certain judges.
Common Cause's Mr. Crangle doesn't think a judge could be swayed by a lawmaker. But even the appearance of a conflict can weaken confidence in the system.
"I've spent a lot of time in courtrooms, and I've never seen a judge bend over (backward) for a senator," Mr. Crangle said. "The perception is bigger than reality, but that doesn't mean it doesn't matter."