The fox needs to stop watching the hen house in Columbia.
That’s essentially the unnerving setup our legislature has created as one of only seven states with self-policing for ethics violations.
Although there hasn’t been an egregious overstep in recent memory, our ethics laws are clearly an amalgam of interweaving laws that leave the door open to abuse.
In South Carolina, we have three different entities interpreting the state’s ethics laws – the State Ethics Commission and the House and Senate ethics committees.
Each one has a different opinion on how elected officials can or cannot spend campaign money. It’s evident that we need an independent panel, one comprised of private citizens, that can make judgements from a clear, singular set of guidelines. What is considered inappropriate in the House should be considered inappropriate in the Senate. Currently, that’s not the case.
For instance, a candidate or elected official using campaign cash to buy gifts is viewed as illegal by the State Ethics Commission and the House Ethics Committee. The Senate Ethics Committee, however, disagrees, leaving that issue to the discretion of each senator.
Our state officials certainly haven’t been void of questions about their principles. In June, state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, resigned during a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into allegations he spent campaign money on personal expenses, including purchases at adult stores. Last year, Lt. Gov. Ken Ard had to resign from after he misspent thousands of dollars in campaign cash on gifts for his family.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, and Gov. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, have also been the subjects of investigations. And let us not forget Operation Lost Trust – the huge FBI sting in our state in 1990 that resulted in 28 legislators, lobbyists and insiders being charged with bribery, extortion and drug use.
The current system of self-policing is intrinsically prone to a lack of transparency and preferential treatment. By creating a single ethics commission – one void of legislators – our state can have a true watchdog group with stronger teeth than what we have now.
An open government that promotes honesty and real reform should be a system that all lawmakers and residents can get behind.