It’s not a secret anymore. It seems that the world has finally discovered South Carolina. Those of us who live here have known it all along: no other place has the beaches, mountains, salt marshes, temperate climate, forests, wildlife and fertile farmlands that we do. When you combine that with strong people, vigorous research universities, top ranked technical training, right-to-work laws and deep-water port access, you get what we are experiencing today: a state in the spotlight, where world class business and industry thrive, where knowledge-based innovation, agricultural diversity and tourism flourish, and where people understand that our priceless natural heritage and great economic potential can not only co-exist, but can compliment and strengthen each other.
Yet, we are concerned. We have seen across our country – and the world – how political scandal and allegations of public corruption can demoralize the citizens and blunt the momentum and energy critical to economic growth and prosperity.
Sound, honest government – from city council chambers to the Statehouse – encourages economic investment and growth, which leads to better jobs, which leads to more revenues, which supports better infrastructure and education, which produces a happier, healthier work force, which in turn leads back to more economic investment and growth. Thus, it is important that our citizens have confidence in and respect for our government.
That is why we two were proud to co-chair the South Carolina Commission on Ethics Reform, appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley. Our 11-member, bipartisan panel – which included former prosecutors, former state ethics commissioners, journalists and former legislators – released its report this week, recommending much-needed changes to our laws dealing with ethics, campaign finance and the public’s access to government records. Here are the highlights:
• Create a strong, independent Ethics Commission with enhanced powers and staff to investigate and discipline violations of our ethics laws by all government officials – without exception – from the school boards and county councils to the Statehouse and constitutional offices. These government officials should all be held to the same high standards, and none should judge each other. Gaps in the ethics laws should be fixed and fines should be increased. A Public Integrity Unit headed by the attorney general should be authorized to receive referrals from the Ethics Commission for investigation and prosecution when criminal misconduct is uncovered.
• Expand disclosure laws to reveal and prevent conflicts of interest by all government officials. These conflicts are often reflected by money. Today, our laws are among the weakest in the nation, requiring officials and spouses to disclose only that income received from their government agency or offices, typically a government salary. Our commission recommends that all other, private income sources be reported as well. And if that private source – usually a business – employs a lobbyist before that public official or has a contract with or is regulated by his government agency, the dollar amount of that private income must be reported, too. Most states require such disclosures. We concluded that going further and requiring dollar amount income disclosure for work in no way related to an official’s post would be an unwarranted invasion of privacy. We also recommend that legislators not only recuse themselves from voting on members of state boards and commissions before which they appear, as currently provided by law, but that they also refrain from attempting to influence that vote while not actually voting. All of this is consistent with current law which provides that public office should not be used for personal gain. And to ensure that citizens know who is attempting to influence their government officials, we recommend that all lobbyists at all levels of government register with the State Ethics Commission.
• Clarify election laws and strengthen campaign finance laws. Last year, over 300 candidates were thrown off the ballot due to confusion in our election laws; this filing process must be clarified. We also recommend clearly specifying how campaign funds can be used, clearly defining and disallowing personal use, and abolishing so-called “leadership political action committees.” Such committees allow a donor to indirectly give a candidate contributions in excess of what he can give him directly, thus fostering at least the appearance of impropriety. We further suggested how our current law could be amended to require anonymous groups running campaign ads to disclose their donors.
• Simplify citizen access to government information. Our current Freedom of Information Act is falling short and allowing confusion and frustration. Only we and two other states allow a response time of 10 days or more by the government agency; only we and 14 other states do not include legislative offices. We recommend shortening the initial response time by the government agency to seven calendar days, like 37 other states, and requiring the full production within 30 days thereafter. We recommend that disagreements between the citizen and the agency over such things as timeliness, costs, scope and propriety of the request and response go quickly to the Administrative Law Court for prompt, official resolution in an informal setting not requiring attorneys. Today, such disagreements languish in the circuit courts. Penalties should be imposed for harassment. We also recommend that all groups or associations receiving public funds should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Our report does not address every change and improvement which must be made. Rather, in the time and scope of our authority, we sought to identify those areas which need immediate attention as well as others which would stimulate further examination and change. Twenty years ago, our citizens demanded and received comprehensive ethics reform. But this work is never over. The time again is upon us. These changes will put us in a class by ourselves. The spotlight is on us; let’s show them how it’s done.
McMaster and Melock are former attorneys general of South Carolina.