Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Opening the Books on House District 124 Candidate Shannon Erickson

According to The Beaufort Gazette, Republican SC House District 124 candidate and daycare owner Shannon Erickson is "big on accountability and transparency personally and in business -- right down to diapers. 'I'm an open book,'" she said.

The Truth Squad is also big on transparency and accountability. So we wanted to read that open book. Ms. Erickson is the owner of three Hobbit Hill daycare centers in Beaufort County. According to her election website, she believes in "a pro-business, pro-family, responsible growth agenda and government that is responsive to the people it serves." Presumably that would mean, if she took a contract from the state of South Carolina to provide a service, she would make sure that she provided that service in a responsible way. But does she?

As a result of the "Corridor of Shame" lawsuit, the General Assembly rolled out a pilot preschool program to serve the eight poorest school districts. Those were Allendale, Dillon 2, Florence 4, Hampton 2, Jasper, Lee, Marion 7 and Orangeburg 3. (After that, if there was any money left, the other 29 plaintiff school districts could start programs.) The law said that eligible families had to live in one of those districts. It gave public schools and privately owned centers (like Erickson's) $3077 for 180 six-hour school days. It also handed out $10,000 "materials" grants for those centers or schools to buy crayons, diapers and kleenex. A lot of crayons, diapers and kleenex, apparently. This year, the General Assembly upped the ante to $3931 and stuffed another $2500 for "materials" into the pockets of returning schools and daycare centers. Newly added programs can still get the original $10,000 crayon grant.

(Sorry about all the boring detail, but this is an open book, appendices and all.)

One of the centers that was approved to have both a preschool program and a crayon grant was Hobbit Hill, owned by the aforementioned "accountability and transparency" candidate for district #124. So how many children were in her program?


That's right, one kid. Probably colored his little heart out at our expense. According to the Education Oversight Committee report on the program, Ms. Erickson's "per student cost" was $9,385. Apparently, even she couldn't buy enough crayons to suck up the whole ten thousand buckaroos. While Hobbit Hill was only the third highest per-student-cost daycare center (behind one in North Augusta and a now defunct one in East Hampton), the other owners are not, as far as we can tell, running for public office on a platform of accountability and transparency. And the state average per child cost was $3,896, so she's clearly making a ton of money from the taxpayers.

The Truth Squad is willing to bet that, if Beaufort county voters send Shannon Erickson to the State House, she'll never vote against government handouts to businesses like hers. Because eventually, she'll have to buy more crayons. At least she'll fit right in with the rest of the General Assembly, tossing dollar bills into the air, and stuffing as many as possible into their own pockets.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Who is ChangeSCNow, LLC?

You've probably heard about the grand idea to litigate out of existence South Carolina's Budget and Control Board. A lawsuit, filed with the South Carolina Supreme Court last month challenges "the existence and/or composition of the Budget & Control Board" as unconstitutional under the South Carolina Constitutional Doctrine of Separation of Powers (Article I, Section 8, of the South Carolina Constitution). The complete lawsuit can be found on Brad Warthen's blog.

Now, we're not constitutional scholars here, and are thus unable to argue the merits of the case. But what's under our magnifying glass here at PTS is the anonymous group behind the suit. Because frankly, there's something that looks a little funky here. And it's not just the lawsuit's annoying use of "comprised of" when it means "composed of" or "comprising" when it describes its anonymous members. What's funky is that the group behind the suit is a nonprofit limited liability company, something far more likely to be found in real estate investments than in nonprofits.

That company is ChangeSCNow, LLC. On its website, there's a page entitled: "Who We Are - and Why We're Doing This". Here's the description: "ChangeSCNow is a grassroots citizens group that evolved after the 2004 Management, Accountability, and Performance (MAP) Commission. Our membership is a coalition of individuals and organizations dedicated to driving demand for more effective government in South Carolina."

The lawsuit describes ChangeSCNow, LLC as a "grassroots nonprofit organization." But that's not how they registered with the Secretary of State's office. On the Secretary of State's website, they are clearly listed as "for profit." And the Greenville attorney who filed the lawsuit, Keith D. Munson, of Womble Carlyle, is the group's registered agent. And Barbara J. Rackes is named as "agent" as of August 21, 2007. That, by the way, is the same day the lawsuit was filed.

A Whois search of the domain name, says the site was registered on March 4, 2007, through the Rackes Group, LLC, a Columbia web marketing company that you wouldn't hire on a bet to design your web site. That's because if you were looking at their site for examples of their work, you wouldn't find any. All you'd find is a page that says " When Jim Rex decided to run for State Superintendent of Education, he called on The Rackes Group to help build an organization to create visibility and credibility for a first-time candidate."

Even weirder, the Rackes Group page headed "Our Work" is marketing dummy text: "Lorem Ipsum is simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry. Lorem Ipsum has been the industry's standard dummy text ever since the 1500s, when an unknown printer took a galley of type and scrambled it to make a type specimen book. It has survived not only five centuries, but also the leap into electronic typesetting, remaining essentially unchanged. It was popularised in the 1960s with the release of Letraset sheets containing Lorem Ipsum passages, and more recently with desktop publishing software like Aldus PageMaker including versions of Lorem Ipsum. Why do we use it?" Why indeed? The main reason for dummy text is a website that's under construction, so the designer can preview the layout. But what kind of a marketing company would leave it up and publish it for all the world to see as an example of their work?

Apparently, The Rackes Group has used all its design acumen on the ChangeSCNow site. But in addition to being boring, it contains this lovely paragraph: "Where do I sign up? Click on PETITION if you would like to read the entire Petition (Pdf format). Click on SIGN UP if you would like to add your name and comments to others supporting the resolution of the above issues in order to preserve separation of power, give the executive branch control over the executive functions of state government and promote a more efficient and responsibly structure to state government in South Carolina. " But there is no "Petition" link or "Sign Up" link. The only ones are on another page referring to their 2005 petition.

ChangeSCNow had its last fifteen minutes of fame when it filed an amicus brief in Sloan v. Wilkins. That case reinforced the concept of "single-subject legislation" when the Court struck several provisions in the 2004 Life Sciences Act.

According to the MacRAE's Blue Book, a database of corporate information, ChangeSCNow, LLC, is located at 1237 Gadsden St Ste 200B, Columbia. That happens to be the very same address for Barbara J. Rackes, according to a State agency that once had a contract with her in its "Information Technology Office." That agency?

The Budget and Control Board.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What's the Palmetto Truth Squad?

We spend way too much time online, we know. But we love this state, we love the First Amendment (and the others, most of them anyway), and we love Palmetto politics. So it was that we recently came upon a blog called Not Very Bright, a guy that discusses South Carolina politics and environmental issues. In a recent post there, someone with the webhandle "Rankin" (the Senator from Horry, perhaps? Dunno.) said this:

There is NO real reporting in SC. Reporters take tips, and scratch the surface. They do not have the time nor intent. State government is falling apart, only too many people are making too much money for it to come out. A couple of bloggers sometimes write thoughtful articles, but generally, they are not much better than the rest of the media. There are tons of state government employees, especially recently retired ones, that will tell where the “bodies are buried”…especially at HHS, DDSN and DSS. Maybe a blogger could “advertise” for tips of abuse, and crimes…and see what happens. The truth will out, if given a little chance.

So this is that blog: the place for truth to will out.

What are we looking for? Verifiable examples of waste, mismanagment and fraud in South Carolina state and local government. We're not interested in who's sleeping with whom, unless that whom happens to be a lobbyist or campaign donor looking to influence a lawmaker under the sheets.

But there are rules:

First, your anonymity will be protected. This is not a gotcha site for whistleblowers. If you are concerned about your anonymity, we'd suggest you write to us via an anonymous e-mail account that is not linked to any account that you currently use. E-mail us at (Sites like Gmail or Hushmail are available for free.) There are no invisible web tracking widgets or other software here to record your IP address.

Second, no lies. Be prepared to back up your claims or they will never appear on this site. This is not a place for scurrilous attacks on other people. The Truth Squad reserves the right to decide if you're lying. If we have doubts, whether through our own investigation or our friends in the know, we'll shred your comments. Period. We will communicate with you via e-mail.

That's it. You'll be anonymous, but you will also be truthful. Fair enough? Let's go.