Column: Legislators failed S.C. on overhauling ethics

  • Posted: Tuesday, July 8, 2014 12:01 a.m.

After watching an intensive two-year effort to overhaul South Carolinaís ethics law fizzle out at the end of this yearís legislative session, itís easy to lose perspective, as the S.C. Policy Councilís Ashley Landess did when she declared that ďNothing in this bill was a step forward.Ē

Clearly, much in the bill was a step forward, notably requiring legislators and other elected officials to tell us the source of all of their income, of the income of their immediate family and, in some cases, of their business associates, increasing some penalties for violating the law and requiring shadowy special-interest groups that increasingly dominate the political debate to tell us who they are when they try to influence our votes.

Just as clearly, the compromise plan that the House passed 101-12 and the Senate allowed to be filibustered to death fell far short of the changes that Landess and other ethics reformers had been pursuing, and for which legislators had pledged their support. The biggest, but certainly not only, shortcoming was allowing the House and Senate Ethics committees to retain their roles as gatekeepers for complaints against legislators.

But while we can argue over tactics Ė is it better to take what we can get this year or to let a bill so watered down die and start over again next year? Ė hereís something youíll be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of the House and Senate chambers to dispute: Itís an outrage that our legislature adjourned this year without overhauling our ethics law.

Itís an outrage that legislators still have the primary responsibility for policing their own compliance with the law Ė which means that even if the Supreme Court overturns an absurd lower-court ruling that stripped the attorney general of the power to prosecute legislators without their permission, the House and Senate Ethics committees still will have the opportunity to bungle investigations into legislatorsí misdeeds, essentially making them unprosecutable.

Itís an outrage that legislators still donít have to tell us who pays their salaries and consulting bills and whatever other types of income they receive, so that we can have some idea of whether they may be putting their personal interests ahead of the publicís interest.

Itís an outrage that ethics enforcers who want to catch violations still donít have the tools to do so, such as additional staff or even the ability to conduct random audits to make it more dangerous for people to violate the campaign-finance provisions of the law.

Itís an outrage that the most abusive violations of our ethics law Ė such as converting campaign funds to personal use and accepting gifts in return for votes Ė are not felonies.

Itís an outrage that special interests can continue to spend untold amounts of money trying to influence our votes Ė often outspending the candidates Ė without telling us who they are, which means thereís no way to judge their motives or to hold them accountable when they lie about the candidates.

Of course, it was an outrage that the best legislators could come up with after two years of declaring this one of their top priorities was a half measure that left themselves in charge of policing themselves and gave themselves and the State Ethics Commission no new tools to detect violations of the law and strengthened penalties only marginally.

As the S.C. Coastal Councilís Dana Beach put it in one of his periodic eblasts, ďAll told, the performance by the legislature on ethics was abysmal, reflecting a general truculence about real reform that was decidedly undemocratic.Ē

Some legislators honestly wanted to reform our law in a way that would reduce the chance that public officials will serve their personal interests or the interests of their campaign donors at the expense of the public interest. This could be done by requiring full reporting of potential conflicts, by outlawing some behaviors that involve conflicts, and clearly defining the lines, and by creating a muscular, independent enforcement mechanism with serious penalties.

But would-be reformers couldnít get enough votes in the House or in the Senate to do all of this. And on point after point, the House-Senate committee charged with reaching a compromise between the two versions of the bill went with the weaker reforms, or, as in the case of independent investigations of complaints against legislators, no reforms at all.

Some legislators honestly opposed the House-Senate compromise because they feared that passing a half measure would ensure the legislature didnít address this issue for another two decades; there is, after all, ample precedent for that approach to lawmaking. Others used that excuse as, well, an excuse, to oppose legislation they never wanted to begin with.

Itís difficult to say for certain who fell into which group.

But while my gut tells me that there were more genuinely committed ethics reformers in the Senate than in the House Ė and Sens. Larry Martin and Wes Hayes deserve special recognition for their work toward reform Ė the fact is that in the end, the House passed the bill, while the Senate refused to stop a handful of ethics opponents from running the clock, and ending the session without ever taking a straight-up vote on it.

Cindi Ross Scoppe is an associate editor with The State newspaper in Columbia.

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