On the very few occasions I have found myself in agreement with Gov. Nikki Haley, I immediately step back and ask myself, is this some kind of a trick? Did I misunderstand her? But on the matter of South Carolina’s desperate need for ethics reform in government, the guv and I are in complete agreement.
Last fall, Haley was a veritable whirlwind around the state, taking her message of reform wherever she went, including the College of Charleston. “It really came to the forefront when I looked at this corruption risk report card that came out last year with an overall grade F,” she said at the Cistern in November. “If you know who pays your legislator, then you know why legislators vote the way they do.”
The report card Haley referred to was published in 2012 by the State Integrity Investigation, and it didn’t say anything that would surprise anyone who follows the news. When it comes to ethics, South Carolina is one of the nation’s worst, coming in at a lowly No. 45.
While our state’s laws were overhauled after the 1990 Operation Lost Trust scandal, there are still too many shortcomings when it comes to ethics enforcement. Whistle-blowers are not protected from retaliation. Political groups may raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations and individuals without disclosing their sources. There are virtually no asset disclosure laws in South Carolina, meaning lawmakers can easily hide their wealth — and the sources of their wealth — even when that money creates a conflict of interest.
When it comes to enforcement, the state Ethics Commission is a toothless tiger that doesn’t even have power over the General Assembly. Our state lawmakers have their own ethics committees to investigate and discipline its members.
According to the State Integrity Investigation report, South Carolina has the worst public information laws in the nation. The report notes that if a public agency refuses to produce documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act, a citizen or journalist may have no alternative but to file suit and go to trial, a process that can be expensive and time consuming. A lack of transparency is a crucial failing when it comes to government. Without transparency, it is impossible for the press and the public to know what parts of their government are being corrupted by money and power. In short, South Carolina is the perfect breeding ground for corruption. In the past two years we’ve seen a lieutenant governor and a state senator forced to resign from office. And those are the ones who got caught.
While Gov. Haley’s reform bill is far from perfect, it would create independent oversight of state ethics laws by a beefed-up Ethics Commission. Legislators would lose their privileged position and be subject to investigation and discipline by the Ethics Commission.
Conflict-of-interest legislation would be strengthened, including rules requiring full disclosure of all public and private sources of income by elected officials. The proposed legislation would clarify the process of candidate filings, limit the way campaign funds can be used, and abolish leadership PACs, those political slush funds that politicians like House Speaker Bobby Harrell use to finance the campaigns of their friends and allies.
Finally, state ethics reform would not be complete without opening the doors and cleaning the windows at the Statehouse to let the sunshine in. This would include removing the General Assembly’s exemption from the Freedom of Information Act and reducing of the time and cost to citizens by using the Administrative Law Court to create an easier mechanism for citizens to address complaints.
Haley’s proposed ethics bill is not perfect. For one thing, it does little to address the dark money pouring into South Carolina political campaigns. But as flawed as this bill is, it was apparently too much for our lawmakers, who pushed it to the end of the last year’s legislative session, then let it die as the clock ran out.
But the bill will be back when the General Assembly convenes in Columbia on Jan. 14, and citizens around the state are gearing up to make sure our legislators address the sorry state of our ethics laws. One of those groups is the League of Women Voters of the Charleston Area, who will sponsor a screening of Pricele$$, a documentary exploring what money buys in American politics today and who is paying for it, Sat. Jan. 12 at Cinebarre in Mt. Pleasant (See City Picks, p. 25).The film screens at 5 p.m. and will be followed by a discussion led by attorney Jay Bender of the S.C. Press Association. Admission is $6. For more information visit lwvcharleston.org/priceless.html.
Will Moredock blogs at WillMoredock.com.