Scoppe: Haley ethics hearing reinforced what we knew

“You are to keep your eyes open, be cognizant of what’s going on around you when you go to social functions, when you go to business functions, and if you hear of opportunities … you let us know.”

Robert Ferrell,

Wilbur Smith Associates

vice president, recounting

then-Rep. Nikki Haley’s duties

If the House Ethics Committee’s hearing into charges against Gov. Nikki Haley demonstrated anything — and it wasn’t that the Legislature is up to the task of policing its own members’ compliance with the ethics law — it was that questions about her employment with the Lexington Medical Center Foundation pale in comparison to questions about her consulting job with Wilbur Smith Associates.

With the foundation, Ms. Haley had an actual job, albeit one that was created just for her, she had to show up for work occasionally, and she produced results — hence the allegations that she was shaking down businesses that needed her support in the Legislature.

By contrast, she produced no results for Wilbur Smith, and it strains credulity to suggest that the engineering company would have even considered paying her $1,000 a month to “keep your eyes and ears open” if she had not been a legislator.

And that should trouble us all.

Mr. Ferrell’s testimony about Ms. Haley’s job instructions, and her complete lack of results, makes it clearer than ever that her arrangement was no different from the discredited practice of utilities and other powerful businesses keeping powerful lawyer-legislators on retainer.

And it makes it clearer than ever that we have work to do on our ethics law.

Keeping legislators on retainer wasn’t prohibited in the 1991 ethics law, because we expect our part-time legislators to hold down full-time jobs, and because there are legitimate reasons for businesses to pay retainers to keep lawyers or other professionals available in case they need their services, or to keep them from working for competitors. Instead, in the approach generally favored over prohibition throughout the ethics law, the practice was outed, with the requirement that legislators report their income from businesses that hire lobbyists.

I always assumed this had put an end to the most notorious arrangements — and I still think it probably has. What I didn’t think about was all those companies that don’t hire lobbyists but still could use a good friend in the Legislature. Now that we’re all thinking about that, I have no doubt that the governor is right when she says other legislators have similar arrangements.

We simply don’t know how widespread those arrangements are. And we should.

Ms. Haley argued during her campaign for governor that legislators should be required to report all of their income — not just income from government and from companies that hire lobbyists. Yet two legislative sessions into her term, there has been no movement in this direction.

It’s well past time for that to change. Whatever concerns we had that this was asking our legislators to give up too much privacy have been obliterated by such clear evidence of the sort of relevant information that we are not receiving under our current, inadequate reporting law.

No, the requirement wouldn’t force employers to acknowledge that they’re paying legislators to do nothing — just as it wouldn’t force them to acknowledge that they hired legislators because they were legislators; only putting them under oath can do that. (It’s already illegal, by the way, for legislators to take jobs they wouldn’t have been offered if they weren’t legislators; but that law is practically impossible to enforce, because that requires proving what’s in people’s hearts when they hired legislators — and possibly even proving what legislators believed when they were hired.)

What a more complete disclosure law could do is to serve as a deterrent, by increasing the chance that businesses and legislators would be called on to explain their relationships. Hence we prevent bad behavior from occurring rather than punishing it after the fact — which always, always should be our preference.

John Rainey, the Republican activist who brought the complaint against the governor, says he has pursued this matter because he was convinced that Ms. Haley’s disclosure reports were deceptive and he believes that “there is no deception without reason.” He might be right on the first count — though I’m not certain about this, given how little our disclosure law requires — and he’s certainly right on the second.

Where his logic fails is in his assumption that the only reason politicians engage in deception is to hide illegal activity. Sometimes they do; more often, I suspect, it’s to hide politically embarrassing information.

Make it clearly illegal to hide politically embarrassing information, and you reduce the chance that politicians will engage in politically embarrassing activities — or that we will elect them to higher office if they do.

Scoppe is associate editor for The (Columbia) State editorial page. She can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.