New ethics reform bill makes getting around laws easier 

Irresponsible Parties

Members of the General Assembly are working on a bill that purports to reform the state's ethics laws. For the most part, it doesn't. One recently added provision tucked away in the bill would actually expand the "official responsibilities" elected officials are permitted to spend campaign money on.

Here's the relevant sentence: "Official responsibilities of the officeholder shall include, but not be limited to, political party events, official appearances or meetings for which reimbursement is not offered by the governmental entity, and educational forums or conventions to which an officeholder is invited in their official capacity."

In effect, all lawmakers would have to do is show that their reimbursements from their campaign account were somehow remotely related to an "educational forum" or a "convention" to which they'd been invited "in their official capacity." And that phrase "but not limited to" gives the definition an almost total elasticity. In effect, lawmakers could legally spend campaign funds on anything short of Super Bowl tickets or a Vegas casino crawl.

Now, leave aside the fact that the provision was pretty obviously inserted into the bill in order to protect House Speaker Bobby Harrell from prosecution. Among the possibilities the state attorney general's office is investigating is whether the speaker used campaign money for things not connected to his official duties.

But the General Assembly can't change the law after the investigation's begun, right? Well, hold on. Now that Judge Casey Manning has decided that the House Ethics Committee should hear the case instead of Attorney General Alan Wilson's grand jury, the whole case will begin anew and the updated definition of "official responsibilities" will be broad enough to give Harrell a plausible defense.

You can also leave aside the fact that the primary concern of "ethics reform" bills like this one shouldn't be with making ethics laws easier to get around, yet that's been largely the point of this bill from the beginning. When the bill was first introduced in early 2013 (to take only one instance out of several), House leaders actually tried to decriminalize the ethics code, i.e. delete the criminal penalties altogether. The attempt was exposed, and House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister (R-Greenville) said it had all been a "mistake." The criminal penalties were reinserted.

But again, leave all that aside.

The really irritating part of the campaign money provision inserted by the House Judiciary Committee last week was revealed by a quote that Rep. Greg Delleney (R-Chester) gave to The State newspaper. When asked about the new definition of "official responsibilities," Dellleney said, "That has long been the practice." In other words, the provision just codifies what the General Assembly has been doing anyway. Lawmakers were already reimbursing themselves for a host of barely "official" responsibilities. (I wonder how many state lawmakers have visited Augusta during the first week of April for the purpose of "economic development.") Just in case they were ever called to account for riding roughshod over the law, however, they decided to go ahead and write the practice into the ethics code.

The point I'm making isn't that our campaign finance laws are too lax, or even that lawmakers are bending those laws to the breaking point. Maybe they are too lax, and maybe lawmakers are breaking them — I don't know. My point, rather, is that legislators just don't care whether they're breaking them or not.

It's a pervasive attitude inside the Statehouse. Take, for instance, the state's budget law. It requires House and Senate appropriations committees to begin the state budget process by holding joint open hearings on the governor's budget, and it requires them to use that document as the budget's starting point. The law is exceptionally clear, and following it would allow citizens and reporters to take a look at the entire state budget as a coherent document at the outset of the budget process. But lawmakers don't want to do it that way. They'd rather keep the process fractured so that nobody really knows what's in the budget until it's too late. They just ignore the law. And I can find no record that they've ever followed it.

Or consider the requirement that lawmakers disclose government income on statements of economic interests submitted to the Ethics Commission. It's a pretty lax requirement, too. Unlike all 49 other states, South Carolina doesn't require state-level politicians to disclose anything about their private income; it only requires them to disclosure public income. But many lawmakers ignore even that obligation.

From 1993 to 2012, for example, Sen. Hugh Leatherman's concrete company raked in more than $30 million in state contracts. Yet the senator didn't bother to put it on his statement of economic interests until my colleague Rick Brundrett of TheNerve.org started asking questions about it. It's a safe bet that many other lawmakers just haven't gotten around to disclosing the state contracts they're making truckloads of government scratch on. What with their busy schedule and all, it probably just slips their mind.

Either that, or they just don't care.


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