Beaufort News

Ex-inspector general questioned legality of tax money going to firefighters' private group

Before leaving office in April, former S.C. Inspector General George Schroeder wrote to Attorney General Alan Wilson requesting a formal opinion about whether it's legal for a private nonprofit corporation that has gotten millions in state taxpayer dollars over the years to receive that money.

On May 5, Assistant Attorney General Leigha Blackwell wrote Schroeder back in a 10-page opinion, saying yes, it is legal for the S.C. State Firefighters Association to receive taxpayer dollars because it serves a public purpose approved by the legislature -- fire protection.

The 106-year-old association got $628,190 last year from the state's 46 counties to be used for firefighting training and related purposes.

"So long as a public purpose is being carried out, and fire service has commonly been held as a public purpose, then the legislature may create or delegate authority to (private) agencies ...," wrote Blackwell.

By May, when the opinion came out, Schroeder had resigned from the inspector general's post. Up until recently, he was unaware the attorney general had ruled on his query. The State obtained the opinion, and Schroeder's letter asking for an opinion, by making a Freedom of Information request to the Attorney General's Office.

"The opinion is well thought out and well-researched," said Schroeder after reading the opinion recently.

Schroeder said the opinion was the only one he sought during his time as inspector general. The opinion's issue played no role in his decision to quit the inspector general's post, he said. Schroeder said the matter was brought to his attention by an upper-level management person in one of the governor's 16 cabinet agencies. He declined specifics.

Schroeder -- former longtime director of the General Assembly watchdog agency the Legislative Audit Council -- raised two questions, he said recently in an interview:

  • Since the association gets public money, are its detailed financial records open for public inspection or government review?
  • Is the association's lobbying firm, Stewart Konduros & Associates, being paid for by public funds? If so, is that proper? The firm, headed by former SLED Chief Robert Stewart, makes about $36,000 a year lobbying the legislature on behalf of the Firefighters Association.
  • Firefighters Association executive director Joe Palmer said Wednesday his group's financial records are open to the public, down to the smallest detail.

    Palmer also said the money paid to Stewart's lobbying firm comes from private funds collected by his group, and not from the taxpayer dollars.

    Palmer also explained that the group, formed in 1905 when most of the state was served by volunteer fire departments, mostly promotes training to the state's 17,576 firefighters, especially those 11,613 firefighters who serve in today's more than 300 volunteer fire departments around the state.

    By state law, the state's 46 county treasurers forward the association a small percentage of a fire-insurance premium tax collected by each county. Last year, the amount forwarded to the association came to $628,190.

    In addition to the $628,190 from the counties, the association got an additional $1.6 million from a number of sources, including private vendor fees at the group's annual weeklong training conference in Myrtle Beach that attracts some 5,000 firefighters.

    A spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley, who hired Schroeder, said of the opinion, "It's our understanding that Jim Martin, the new inspector general, has received the Attorney General's opinion and is reviewing the issue, and we look forward to hearing what he comes back with."