Sunlight has always been the best disinfectant. The League of Women Voters of South Carolina strongly believes our democracy is best served by maximizing transparency in the actions of our public officials. We have been reminded repeatedly over the last several years that there are serious gaps in South Carolina’s ethics laws. We now have the best chance in years to insure integrity in state government, or we can fall short with half measures. The governor’s Ethics Reform Commission and three committees in the General Assembly are working on solutions, but there are many pressures to stop short of what is needed.
The way that money finds it way into our political process is a central concern. Political Action Committees can now funnel unlimited funds of unknown origins into South Carolina’s political campaigns. We must demand disclosure of the sources of these funds. Some of our legislators have been the target of these “dark money” attacks and support this change.
Other needed changes may encounter more resistance. We must eliminate so-called leadership PACs. These enable officials to solicit funds to distribute to their friends and allies, bypassing both disclosure of sources and legal limits on the amount of direct contributions to candidates. Any reform that does not prohibit these PACs is inadequate, the equivalent of building a protective wall but leaving the gates wide open. We must end the use of multiple “shell” corporations to funnel money from a single individual to candidates.
We also must change how campaign funds are used. We prohibit converting campaign funds to personal use, but allow expenditures to defray “ordinary expenses” connected with an individual’s official duties. This exemption has been stretched to encompass the diversion of hundreds of thousands of dollars from campaign accounts to personal bank accounts. All use of campaign funds outside an actual political campaign should be prohibited. The General Assembly should fund the legitimate costs of public office using public funds, not corporate and PAC donations.
Personal financial disclosures are another area of concern. Our laws already require that candidates report some of their personal income and assets. However, current disclosure requirements are very narrow and do not cover such income as “consulting fees.” Disclosure requirements must apply to all sources of income. Reports should include the source and the amount of the income as well as the service provided by the public official in return for the payment. There is already pressure within the General Assembly not to require disclosure of the amounts of such fees. We know from recent controversies in South Carolina that the amounts of money changing hands and what was done to earn that money are of very legitimate public interest.
County and state elections offices, rather than political parties, are better positioned to manage the process of personal financial disclosure. Bills have already been introduced to make the sort of debacle that we saw in the last elections far less likely. The best solutions include assigning the entire filing process to county and state elections offices, rather than to political parties. Further improvement would be possible if the state Elections Commission is given authority to enforce sound practices in elections offices throughout the state, a change that is long overdue for many reasons.
Finally, our ethics laws are only as good as their enforcement. We need routine audits of disclosures. The Ethics Commission should be adequately funded and it should be protected from political interference. The collaborative multi-agency Public Integrity Unit that has been organized by the Attorney General’s Office and other agencies can be a useful part of the investigative process, but it is not in itself a sufficient answer to the need for independent inquiries. We need to be sure that credible complaints are always sent forward for professional review and that if thorough investigation shows probable cause to believe that there was wrongdoing, we can count on appropriate disciplinary action or criminal prosecution. We need independent disciplinary judgment – the issue of legislative self-judgment needs to be modified.
Citizens must hold their representatives accountable for producing genuine and far-reaching reform. If we don’t get it now, we will see many years – and many scandals – go by before we have another equal opportunity to improve the integrity and transparency of our state government.
The writer, co-president of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, lives in Columbia.