- Associated Press - Saturday, July 23, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The State Ethics Commission is weighing whether it’s ethically OK for a group of lawyers to arrange a special dinner for the judges of on-the-job injury claims.

The state Association for Justice sought an advisory opinion in advance of its annual conference next month on Hilton Head Island, where Workers’ Compensation commissioners were invited to speak at an afternoon seminar and attend a breakfast two days later.

Commissioners have spoken at the association’s last several conferences, and the group reimburses some expenses, such as hotel rooms.

But the state won’t reimbursement for such travel, so commissioners told the association the out-of-pocket costs were “becoming unreasonable,” said Gary Cannon, director of the Workers’ Compensation Commission.

Stephen Samuels, the association’s workers’ comp section leader, said Friday that’s when he came up with the idea of treating the commissioners and their spouses to dinner, saying he realized “it’s pretty expensive to hang out in Hilton Head.”

But that raised legal and ethical questions. The commissioners are de facto judges appointed by the governor, so they fall under both judicial conduct codes and state ethics law - as does the association, since it employs Statehouse lobbyists.

“If they do it right, this dinner would actually be permissible” under state law, Ethics Commission attorney Michael Burchstead told his agency’s governing board Wednesday.

That’s if the association invited all commissioners and kept the dinner’s costs within contribution limits, he said. Entities that lobby state government can individually spend up to $60 daily or $480 yearly on public officials’ entertainment.

But Burchstead said he’s not sure about the judicial codes. One provision says judges can’t accept a gift from lawyers who appear before them in court, but another gives an exception to “ordinary social hospitality, whatever that means,” he said.

He intends to do more research and bring the question back to the ethics board later, since an answer is no longer needed for the upcoming conference. Workers Compensation commissioners have decided not to go.

But the lawyers’ association still wants the question answered, whether for their next conference or for conferences of other legal groups where the commissioners are invited to speak.

“They’re just trying to be careful and not do anything that’s improper or appears to be improper,” Samuels said of his association.

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