Letters to the Editor

Oversight Skips Lawmakers

Editor's note: The following editorial appeared Tuesday in The (Columbia) State.

If Mark Sanford were a senator instead of governor, he wouldn't have had to pay that $74,000 fine for misusing state aircraft and campaign funds; he could have just taken the little slap on the wrist of a public reprimand - if that.

Conversely, if Sen. Jake Knotts were a county council member, as he often seems to want to be, or (heaven help us) governor, he'd be in a heap of trouble right now: In addition to having to return nearly $25,000 in illegal campaign contributions and getting that public reprimand, he'd be facing fines of $118,000 for accepting those donations, plus as much as $240,000 depending on how the Ethics Commission chose to handle a litany of other violations that resulted from either a cavalier attitude toward the law or a deliberate attempt to violate it.

As refreshing as it was to see the Senate Ethics Committee actually enforcing the state campaign finance law - for the first time, as far as we can tell - the panel's treatment of Sen. Knotts' repeated violations of that law does more than critics ever could to demonstrate just how insufficient the legislature's self-policing ethics system is.

Senate Ethics Chairman Wes Hayes says the panel did pretty much all it could: State law allows the State Ethics Commission to fine candidates and public officials up to $100 per day for failure to file their campaign and economic disclosure reports on time and to issue fines of up to $2,000 for each substantive violation of the law - be that using campaign funds inappropriately, as in Sanford's case, or accepting illegal contributions or filing fraudulent reports. But the Ethics Commission's jurisdiction covers only state and local officials.

The House and Senate Ethics committees, which police their own members, can levy fines only against late filers - not against people who violate substantive provisions of the law, as Knotts did. Their only options when they find violations beyond tardy reports are private warnings, public reprimands and expulsion.

Up until now, Hayes said, his committee has sent private warning letters when it spotted substantive violations on campaign finance reports - most often such things as people accepting more than the legally allowed $1,000 per election cycle from the same donor, or accepting gifts over the legal limit, or not filling out their forms properly - and in all cases, the offending senator has corrected the problem.

It's nice that things have gotten worked out, but there's no good reason it should be worked out in secret. Beyond that, there's a reason legislators included punitive provisions in the law (at least as it applies to non-legislators): People should be punished, not necessarily harshly, but punished, when they violate the law.

Clearly the legislative committees need an option in between wrist-slapping and the political death penalty, and it should be the same option the Ethics Commission has - which Hayes says he plans to pursue in January. But the fact that we are just now recognizing that this wasn't included in the 1991 law speaks volumes.

And it reminds us once again that while the House and Senate do indeed need to have the final say over whether to kick out misbehaving members, they should not be in charge of deciding whether their colleagues violate the laws that apply to all elected officials and candidates for office. That should be the job of the Ethics Commission.