Charleston County's legislative delegation has been making a lot of news lately, and not the kind that makes us proud.
Sen. Robert Ford stands accused by the Senate Ethics Committee of numerous violations over the last four years, including an inappropriate use of campaign funds and a failure to keep proper campaign finance records. But Ford is hardly the only Lowcountry politician to land in hot water.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell is being investigated by SLED. The Charleston Republican has been accused of using his position to promote his drug-packaging business, while his leadership PAC has handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and private contracts to incumbent legislators.
And then there's Daniel Island Rep. Jim Merrill. Last year, The Post and Courier reported that Merrill has been on the payroll of the S.C. Association of Realtors. While receiving some $158,000 in consulting fees from the Realtors, he was the "primary sponsor and leading voice on legislation" to cut property taxes, making it easier for real estate agents to sell houses. Not only did his one-man consulting firm handle direct mail for the association, but "Merrill's work included advising the Realtors as to which legislators would fall in line with their priorities so the group could back those lawmakers' campaigns," the P&C reported. The group also paid Merrill to design a statewide newspaper ad urging further tax cuts by the S.C. House. Ultimately, the House Ethics Committee declared that there was nothing illegal or unethical in Merrill's behavior.
Let's not forget another Charleston resident, former Gov. Mark Sanford. Aside from his personal misadventures, he was fined a record $72,000 by the State Ethics Commission for scores of ethics violations, including the personal use of a state airplane.
And before she was governor, Nikki Haley was a member of the House of Representatives. She was on the payroll of a Lexington County hospital at the same time she was pushing legislation in the General Assembly that was beneficial to the hospital. Furthermore, she was paid $42,000 as a consultant by the engineering firm Wilbur Smith Associates, while legislation was before the House that would affect them. It's worth noting that Haley has no engineering background.
And finally, there's former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, who was forced to resign his office last year after pleading guilty to campaign finance law violations. The former lite guv made numerous personal purchases using campaign cash, including clothing for his wife, tickets to the SEC Championship game, and a Playstation 3.
Today the General Assembly is wrestling with ethics reform — but not very effectively, it seems. The efforts they have made have been watered down. However, one group is actually fighting for tougher ethics laws: the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.
I recently spoke with Lynn Shuler Teague, advocacy director for the League. She said, "The first thing we must do is require legislators to disclose all sources of income. Right now, they are required to disclose only wages and salaries." Currently, there are no requirements for politicians to disclose consulting fees, dividends, investments, and other potential conflicts of interest, and there is nothing to stop legislators from influencing legislative matters that would affect those sources.
Teague would also like to see the creation of an investigative team, free from personal and partisan interests. This group would be composed of investigators from SLED, the attorney general's office, the inspector general's office, the Ethics Commission, and the Department of Revenue. As it stands now, legislators investigate themselves, and they generally hand down non-criminal penalties for ethics violations. As such, our men and women in Columbia have no incentive to embarrass themselves or their institutions, or to limit their ability to pull in undisclosed amounts of cash.
"This is critical to everything else," Teague said. "It is a violation of the separation of powers for the legislature to investigate and discipline itself."
In order for the League of Women Voters to accomplish their goals, the group is willing to put a constitutional amendment creating this investigative unit before voters.
Teague is also concerned about leadership PACs — she thinks they should be abolished — and a loophole in state campaign finance law. In the days just before an election, groups and individuals are free to make large campaign donations, with no requirement that they be disclosed until months after the election. Teague believes that this "dark period" must be eliminated and that legislation must be passed requiring candidates to post contributions to their respective campaign websites on a daily basis.
According to the League of Women Voters' advocacy director, the kind of legalized corruption we see among our elected officials today "makes people cynical, makes them feel their vote doesn't count," Teague said, before noting, "Perhaps it doesn't." Unfortunately, she may be right.
To follow the League of Women Voters' efforts, go to the LWV website at lwvsc.org.