COLUMBIA — Keeping up with allegations of ethical misconduct against elected officials is becoming increasingly difficult in South Carolina. While a House panel cleared one lawmaker last week, 2014 begins with at least four cases awaiting decisions from authorities.
In recent years, politicians have responded to the mounting cases by promising to strengthen the state's weak ethics laws. Ethics reform is again touted as a priority for 2014. But the head of a government watchdog group said he suspects the rhetoric won't translate into law next year either.
John Crangle of Common Cause pointed to last week's dismissal of allegations that Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Woodruff, inappropriately used state aircraft.
“On one hand, it shows more than ever before the need we have for serious ethics reform, but it also shows the incapacity of the General Assembly to deal with its ethical problems effectively,” he said.
The chief holdup to progress on ethics reform is debate over who investigates legislators.
Currently, legislative ethics panels oversee their colleagues, while the State Ethics Commission oversees all other state and local officeholders. In what legislators called a first step at reform, the House revamped its ethics panel last December, to include five members of each party.
While it wrapped up the Chumley case, that panel is still weighing what to do with Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg, who's accused of using his campaign account for personal benefit. Mitchell told his colleagues at a hearing in November that he kept poor records and didn't properly pay his bills, but those were unintentional mistakes.
The panel's options include dismissal, public reprimand, fines and expulsion.
Former Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, tossed himself from the Legislature on May 31, resigning halfway into hearings that included allegations he spent campaign money at adult stores. Ford's lawyer, William Runyon, says horrible bookkeeping skills led to inadvertent errors. The committee found Ford committed multiple violations and forwarded all supporting documents to Attorney General Alan Wilson for further investigation.
The Republican attorney general also is reviewing allegations against House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston. Wilson directly took a complaint in February from a limited-government group, noting potential conflicts of interest with any review by the House Ethics Committee.
Wilson forwarded the case to state law enforcement and got back its investigative report earlier this month. No timetable has been placed on a decision. Harrell denies any wrongdoing.
Wilson also has been asked to consider whether Haley should refund taxpayers for a trip to North Carolina in June. The State Ethics Commission says Haley isn't required to reimburse for that trip, and its board considers the matter closed. But Crangle disagrees.
Other politicians facing ethics allegations include state Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, whose hearing before the State Ethics Commission is set for March. He's accused of using campaign money to accompany his girlfriend to the Republican National Convention last year. Eckstrom's chief of staff contends it was clearly a political event for the elected Republican, but the commission's director says Eckstrom was not there in any official capacity.
Whether other legislators or statewide officers are in ethical hot water is unknown. Under state law, ethics complaints remain secret until probable cause is found.
In Chumley's case, he arranged for state aircraft to shuttle conservative commentator Walter Williams from a suburban Washington airport March 20 to testify for his anti-Obamacare bill. The four-leg trip would have cost a paying passenger nearly $6,400, according to the state Aeronautics Commission.
A clause in the state budget specifically bars state planes from being used for transportation to and from routine legislative meetings. But violating it requires a lawmaker to do so knowingly and for personal benefit. Chumley's chief defense was an opinion from the House Ethics Committee's former attorney, who didn't consider the budget clause when she concluded the flight was OK.
“He demonstrated there was no intent of violating the law,” Ethics Committee Chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, said after Monday's unanimous vote.
Crangle called the outcome bizarre, saying ignorance of the law is not an excuse. He suggested the committee ask him to pay for the trip anyway, even without admonishing him. People unintentionally crash their cars, but they're still liable, he said.