The Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization, gives South Carolina a grade of “F” on the risk for corruption. This comes on the heels of ethics investigations involving a former governor, the current governor, a lieutenant governor and now a sitting House Speaker.
It has been 22 years since the last comprehensive ethics overhaul in South Carolina. At that time, 17 state lawmakers were taken down in an FBI sting targeting vote buying and bribery.
Today, South Carolina’s ethics regulations allow legislators to take actions that are seemingly unethical, yet entirely legal. Our current system breeds cynicism among the electorate, and greatly muddles the task of assessing the performance of our elected officials.
Four committees, most prominently a bipartisan commission formed at the behest of Governor Nikki Haley, have been tasked with proposing ways to improve the state’s antiquated ethics and open record laws. State lawmakers Wes Hayes, R-York; Luke Rankin, R-Horry; and others have proposed legislation that begins to address the gaps, but much work remains to be done.
The primary flaws in South Carolina’s existing ethics framework involve campaign finance issues and legislative conflicts of interest. Leadership Political Action Committees, or PACs, are permitted to subvert campaign finance laws by masking the identity and expenditures of individual donors, and allowing legislative leaders to dole out funds to political allies. Current laws do not require legislators to disclose income derived from sources such as consulting fees or payment for contracted services.
Internal House and Senate committees at present enforce alleged ethics violations; leading many to allege the “fox is guarding the henhouse.”
Senate bills 338, 347, 13 and 412 provide a good framework from which to start much needed reform. These proposed pieces of legislation would: clarify the process by which all candidates file statements of economic interest and transfer the authority to handle filings from political parties to state and county elections officials; eliminate leadership PACs; require disclosures of donors and expenditures by “independent” PACs which have aired anonymous attack ads in past elections; require greater candidate disclosure of income from all sources; and transfer authority for oversight of General Assembly members and staff to the South Carolina Ethics Commission. Another recently filed bill, S.505, will allow the Public Integrity Unit to more effectively investigate ethics cases.
These are laudable proposals that deserve public support; however they do not go far enough. While ethics reform remains in the spotlight, we must strike while the iron is hot and push for deeper and more fundamental changes to rebuild the broken trust in our public institutions and elected officials.
South Carolina should look to Washington state’s model and require candidates to disclose the name, address and amount of any form of income received, to include compensation derived from businesses owned in whole or in part by a public official.
Legislators should also require candidates to disclose any fiduciary positions, whether compensated or not, to allow voters to better evaluate politicians. All lobbyists, to include those at the local government level, should be required to register with the State Ethics Commission.
Along with crafting tighter disclosure and campaign finance laws, the task of enforcement must be strengthened as well. The South Carolina Ethics Commission should conduct periodic audits of personal and campaign disclosures and impose stricter penalties on those who violate ethics laws. The legislature must ensure the Ethics Commission has sufficient funding to accomplish these tasks.
State lawmakers who have proposed legislation to improve our ethics laws are to be commended for taking steps in the right direction. Using their work as a starting point, we must push for more comprehensive and meaningful ethics reform to ensure our elected officials answer not to wealthy interest groups, but to South Carolina voters.
The writer is co-president of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.