Big Business Comes a-Snoopin’

What do you think are the odds that this is only a coincidence:

Just days after I slam the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its president Tom Donohue in the media across the country, and in the Congressional newspaper The Hill, I get a mysterious visitor looking for tax records?

How about zero chance?

An Innocuous-Looking Visitor
Last Friday afternoon, a college-looking guy walks into my office.  (That’s right. No guards or layers of office personnel to go through. You want to see me, just walk right in.)  

He said that he was out collecting information from businesses for a class project at the University of South Carolina and wanted to get a copy of our 990 tax form.  “It’s supposed to be public information” he reminded me.  

I was a little taken back by his request, not because I wasn’t going to give it to him, but because since I co-founded the Small Business Chamber over 10 years ago nobody has ever asked for the tax return.

Duplicity vs. Transparency
Obviously, my curiosity was engaged. As I walked him down the hall to my membership coordinator Stephanie’s office, where the returns are kept, I started to ask some innocent questions about what he was going to do with the information and what other “businesses” he had called on.

As I quickly figured out, my new friend wasn’t very good at deception and he started changing his tune with every question I asked.  His story quickly turned from general information collection to specifically being instructed to obtain our tax return.  When I asked him for the name of the professor who gave him his assignment, he first said he wasn’t supposed to tell me, then he gave me a name and then just as quickly he said it was all a lie.  He wasn’t supposed to tell us what he was really doing or who he was working for.

OK, But Who Are You, Really?
He seemed relieved that he had put his deception behind him and told me that he was a USC law student clerking for the McNair Law Firm.  He understood that someone from out-of-state had asked McNair to obtain information on us.  He said that he didn’t know which McNair attorney put the order in for one of the students in the clerking pool to call on us but he did give us the name of his supervisor. (We called her and verified that he had been sent by McNair.) 
McNair Law Firm, at 1301 Gervais (photo: omk_489)
The Powers Behind the Ruse
The McNair Law Firm is one of the largest and most politically powerful law firms in South Carolina.  If you’ve got deep pockets, the McNair Law Firm will move mountains to get you what you want.  Its website proclaims, “McNair is the go-to law firm that gets things done for business, government, organizations and individuals throughout the Carolinas.”

With McNair’s connections far and wide, it is easy to imagine a phone call from the U.S. Chamber (or someone representing the Chamber) asking the firm for a simple favor: get some intel on this Knapp guy and the S.C. Small Business Chamber.

Now, the U.S. Chamber and Tom Donohue have a very good reason to be ticked off at me and our non-profit chamber.  After all, in my press teleconference call last Monday (with a U.S. Chamber person listening) I all but called Donohue’s U.S. Chamber a prostitute for big business.  “Show them the money and they’ll do anything you want.”  Read the revealing in-depth story on Donohue in the current edition of Washington Monthly.

Liar, Liar
But why is the McNair Law Firm teaching our future lawyers to lie when they do their jobs?  Why did the McNair Law Firm feel it was important not to let me know who wanted our public tax records?  I wonder how the USC Law School feels about the “real life” education their students are receiving.  If nothing else, there are some McNair lawyers who need a refresher course in ethics (and common sense, too).

As I handed our tax return to my young friend, I asked that he convey a message to those who wanted our information: “Tell them to grow a pair and just call me next time.” 
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