I have no quarrel with Rep. Samuel Rivers Jr., a Republican state lawmaker and doctor of theology from Goose Creek. But when I received a tip that Rivers had a criminal record and that he was not, in fact, a real doctor, I had to follow up on it.
The stories were true. By his own admission, Rivers has not completed a doctoral program. He received an honorary Ph.D. in theology from Smith Christian University, a little-known Florida school with interesting credentials (more on that later). And yet he lists "Doctorate of Theology" as a bullet point on his Statehouse website biography, and he calls himself a "Doc of Theology" on Twitter. Furthermore, on the website for his North Charleston church, The Voice of the Lord International Ministries, Inc., Rivers actually wrote that he "earned a Doctorate Theology and Ph.D. from Smith University," which is not true if you take the word "earned" in the strict sense to mean "attended the school and wrote a dissertation." (Rivers revised the text of his website after I questioned him about his qualifications.)
As for the criminal charges, Berkeley County court records show that Rivers was convicted of assault and battery in August 1995 and sentenced to either 30 days in prison or a $376 fine. County employees were unable to provide further details about the nature of the charge, so I asked Rivers about what happened.
"It was a dispute, an argument, a disagreement with me and a friend," Rivers said. "When I turned, he threw something at me, and literally it was a self-defense thing, but, if I can remember, we went to court, it was thrown out, that's all. It was two friends who got in a tussle. I got the best of him, and he called the cops."
An assault and battery conviction is the sort of detail that would likely have been dug up by opposition researchers if Rivers had faced any opposition in his first Statehouse run. But 2012 was the year of the Great South Carolina Ballot Fiasco, when nearly 200 candidates were disqualified due to improperly filed statements of economic interest, and both Rivers and his Democratic opponent, Marian Redish, were initially thrown off the ballot. Rivers later filed and was accepted as a petition candidate, and he took 98 percent of the vote in District 15.
Never surrender to inevitable; there is to much accomplish and you will emerge unscathed pic.twitter.com/OjLQALSaPg— Samuel Rivers Jr (@SamuelRivers) July 31, 2014
Recently, Rep. Rivers was in the news thanks to a story by former Charleston City Paper reporter Corey Hutchins in the Columbia Journalism Review. Hutchins reported that in a July 21 guest column for The Post and Courier against the expansion of the EPA's regulations on small bodies of water — an issue that would have some impact here in South Carolina — Rivers used whole paragraphs that were identical or nearly identical to an op-ed being circulated by a cattle ranchers' lobby in Wyoming. Rivers said he worked on the column in collaboration with a "friend of mine" whose name he would not reveal. He also insists he did not copy and paste anything into his column.
Hutchins wrote, "It's generally assumed that politicians often don't write their own op-eds — the task falls to a communications aide, with a sign-off by the boss who puts his or her name on it when it goes to the newspaper. But cribbing notes from an industry group is something else — maybe not so uncommon, but usually not so obvious."
As I said, I don't have a dog in this fight. But you know who does? Tyler Jones, third vice chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party.
Jones called me on a recent Friday afternoon after sending an email with a vague promise of a hot tip. I had reason to believe Jones was onto something. He was part of the trio of Democratic operatives who revealed to the press that former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard was racking up personal expenses on a campaign credit card, a story that ultimately led to Ard's resignation in 2012.
The Ard scandal was discovered during a mountain retreat after state Democrats had taken some losses in the 2010 election. This time around, Jones went after Rivers while at home recovering from ACL surgery.
"I'm laid up in the house, nothing better to do than dig up a bunch of dirt on Republicans," Jones said by way of introduction. Rivers is up for re-election in November, and Jones and the Democrats are backing Redish in a rematch of the 2012 race.
"The voters of District 15 deserve an explanation from Rep. Rivers about his questionable past, as well as his pattern of dishonesty," Jones said later, after I'd spent a week doing some digging myself. "Any politician who gets busted for plagiarism, has an assault and battery conviction on their record, and appears to have lied about having a Ph.D. needs to be held accountable to the voters."
It's worth noting that Redish, the Democrat in the District 15 race, bears a few similarities to her opponent. Like Rivers, she is in charge (along with her husband, Charlie) of a nondenominational Christian ministry in North Charleston, Life Changers Covenant Ministries. According to her biography on the ministry's website, Redish is "a dynamic teacher, motivator, and explosive conference speaker with the word of the Lord in her mouth."
Redish's description of her educational background is similar to Rivers'. According to her campaign website, Redish is "a graduate of the New York State Educational System" and "attended Tabernacle Bible Institute in Jamaica, N.Y." A Google search for the Tabernacle Bible Institute brings back phone book results for a school by the same name in White Springs, N.Y. The only listed phone number is disconnected. A second phone number goes to a voicemail message from the Tabernacle of Prayer Revival Center, which might not be the same thing. It's difficult to track down the school to confirm Redish attended it. However, unlike Rivers, Redish does not claim to have earned a Ph.D.
Like Rivers, Redish has also seen the inside of a Berkeley County courthouse. In fact, she and her husband Charlie have been taken to court 10 times since 1996 for either debt collection, foreclosure, or other property issues, mainly by the Eagle Landing Homeowners Association. I called Redish and her campaign manager, Kayin Jones, but did not receive a response from Redish. Instead, Jones gave me the following prepared statement: "We are running a positive campaign focusing on the issues and reaching out to the voters. Period."
If Redish is running a positive campaign, she must not have told the state Democratic Party. At a recent candidate forum hosted by the Goose Creek NAACP, Redish was unable to attend, but in her place attendees found flyers on their seats with the title "Get to know the REAL Rep. Samuel Rivers Jr." Among the bullet points on the flyer: "Does Not Support President Obama," "Voted Against Medicaid Expansion," "Supports Ending NAACP boycott over Confederate flag," and "Called Public Schools 'Dangerous Plantations where children are captive to left-wing brainwashing.'" The bottom line reads, "Paid for by the S.C. House Democratic Caucus."
"Any politician who gets busted for plagiarism, has an assault and battery conviction on their record, and appears to have lied about having a Ph.D. needs to be held accountable to the voters."
—Tyler Jones, third vice chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party
I went to see Rivers on a Wednesday night at The Voice of the Lord International Ministries, which occupies the end unit of a shopping center off Remount Road featuring a discount grocery and a Mexican market. I walked in toward the end of a service and started looking for a seat in the back. Upon seeing me, Rivers stopped speaking to his flock and asked, "Are you a reporter?" I told him I was, and he asked me to wait in the lobby.
Later, on the sidewalk after Rivers had seen the congregants out to their cars, I asked him about the Democrats' flyer from the NAACP rally. He said he doesn't dispute most of the statements about him, aside from the charge that he said public schools were "dangerous plantations," which he said is "a total lie."
"I'm not ashamed of my record," Rivers said. "I stand by my record."
Before going to see Rivers, I spent much of the day trying to wrap my head around Smith Christian University. The school's website, smithcu.org, is a web designer's nightmare. Many of the links on the homepage are broken, the "Students Highlight" section is populated by what appear to be stock model photos, and when I tried to email the administrative contacts listed on the website, nearly all of them bounced back to me. Several pages, including Who We Are and the Chancellor's Welcome, include text that is identical or nearly identical to text from other universities' websites. No one answered the main phone line, and the only listed address is a P.O. box in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Out of curiosity, I applied for the Ph.D. program — the form does not request a transcript or an essay — and was greeted by the on-screen message "Thank you for apply [sic] to Smith Christian University." I've yet to receive an acceptance letter, but my fingers are crossed.
At this point, I realized I was going down a rabbit hole, but I had become interested in Rep. Rivers' religious connections. Aside from his doctorate, he has said he is a "spiritual son" of King Adamtey I, a pastor from North Carolina (born Kingsley Fletcher) who claims to be the suapolor ("pathfinder and waymaker") of the Se Traditional Area in Ghana's Dangme West District. This claim has been disputed, including by an editorial in the Mexican newspaper El Siglo de Torreón, which called Adamtey un charlatán after he made a public appearance with the governor of Puebla. It's also worth noting that Ghana is a constitutional democracy. "He's mentored me in a lot of things, spiritual issues, as it pertains to ministry and so many other things," Rivers said when I asked him what it means to be a spiritual son of Adamtey.
As for Smith Christian University, the school is accredited by Transworld Accrediting Commission International, a California-based group that is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as an accrediting agency. I called Transworld and never received a call back.
The school is not licensed by the Florida Department of Education. I called the department's Commission of Independent Education, and an official explained to me that, under Florida law, religious colleges are allowed to operate without any oversight by the commission as long as they verify by sworn affidavit that the school is a religious institution. Smith Christian University submitted one such affidavit in April 2014.
"I have gone to school, different schools, religious schools and institutions, but I really wish we would stay away from things like that, and let's focus on the actual issues, because that distorts the voters."
—Rep. Samuel Rivers Jr.
According to records from the Florida Department of State, Smith Christian University registered with the state as a nonprofit corporation in 2006 and has changed its name three times and its principal address four times since then, moving from Fort Lauderdale to Sunrise to Plantation to its current address in Tamarac. I called neighboring businesses at three of the locations, and all but one had never heard of Smith Christian University. An employee at a locksmith in Tamarac said he's new there, but he had met the staff of the school. "I don't know what times they're normally there," he said. "But yeah, they're good people."
Finally, I received a call from Smith Christian University's Dr. Cyclyn Smith-Mobley, who said she has been the chairperson at the school for three months and that the school has been undergoing "restructuring." She had called in response to one of my inquiries about the school, although I wasn't sure which one. I had sent a lot of inquiries.
"If he said he got an earned degree, that's not the truth," Smith-Mobley said. "It was an honorary degree." I pressed her for the physical address of the school, and she initially refused to tell me where it was located. She called again the next day to give me the address in Tamarac.
When I asked Rivers about the propriety of calling himself a doctor without including the caveat that it's only an honorary degree, he said it's not an important issue to voters.
"I have gone to school, different schools, religious schools and institutions, but I really wish we would stay away from things like that, and let's focus on the actual issues, because that distorts the voters," Rivers said. "The voters are unconcerned with a doctorate of theology."
So let's talk about the issues. There's scarce little information about Redish's platform on her campaign website, which instead lists a litany of complaints about Rep. Rivers and concludes, "We can do better!"
Rivers' voting record, on the other hand, establishes him as a quiet but consistent conservative, with high marks on the legislative scorecard from the pro-business S.C. Business and Industry Political Education Committee (BIPEC) and a score of 92 percent from the National Rifle Association. He's not a headline-grabber, but he toes the Republican Party line. He voted for Voter ID, against expansion of Medicaid, and against the adoption of federal Common Core standards for education. He also has the distinction of being the only black Republican currently in the Statehouse. (His challenger is also black.)
Like many South Carolina GOP lawmakers, Rivers has taken campaign donations from Howard Rich, a New York City libertarian activist who seeks to promote voucher programs in South Carolina public schools. Rich is notorious for using shell LLCs to bypass campaign spending limits, and in 2012 Rivers received $6,000 (nearly one-third of his total war chest that year) from LLCs or addresses that have been connected with Rich in reports by either the Center for Public Integrity, the S.C. New Democrats, or the anti-Rich blog Buying South Carolina.
In South Carolina, political parties do not play a role in vetting their candidates. Unlike other states where the party selects its candidates via convention, South Carolina has open primaries and anyone can file for office with either party, regardless of whether the party leadership's approves or not. So it's not as if the party could have run a background check on Rivers and stopped him from running. Josh Whitley, newly elected chairman of the Berkeley County GOP, said that while this is the first he's heard about questions about Rivers' Ph.D., he and the party are "100 percent behind him" in the upcoming November election.
"Even before I was the party chairman, if I called Rep. Rivers, he answered the phone. He was responsive, he listened, he was very engaged," Whitley said. "All the qualities we wanted in a representative in terms of constituent service, knowing who you are, returning your calls — he's one of the very best. I think his conservative voting record — we're certainly very proud of it in the Republican Party."
Whitley added, "That's the first I've heard of that [issue] with his Ph.D. I'll look into it. But I'll tell you, his other title, R-E-P, Representative, he earned it. And I think he'll earn it again in November."