MY LAST NERVE: If You’re Going to Skirt Ethics Laws, You’d Better Be Powerful

November 4, 2016

Inside Insight

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By PHILLIP CEASE

Statehouse-Dome

Also, don’t announce your retirement

If you’re in the South Carolina legislature and you’re planning on bending or breaking campaign finance laws, you might want to make sure you are either powerful, popular, or planning on staying in office for a while. Otherwise stay on the right side of the ethics laws.

This week the Senate Ethics Commission handed out a whopping $125,000 fine to outgoing Sen. Ray Cleary. While Cleary did not fight the charges, the timing was interesting. Last October, Cleary announced that he would not run again for the seat he held since 2005. In July of this year, the Senate Ethics Committee filed a complaint alleging numerous campaign violations.

Why was an outgoing legislator put under investigation and given a stiff ethics fine? A critic of the legislature’s self-protective ethics process might reasonably conclude that the Senate just needed to look tough and hit somebody. Over the last two years, after all, the General Assembly has come under increasing criticism for its longstanding practice of empowering lawmakers to adjudicate other lawmakers’ ethics violations.

Maybe ethics committee members legitimately though Cleary deserved the fines, whether or not he was retiring. But look back to the last few high-profile ethics cases. This wasn’t the first time in recent years that they’ve investigated unpopular, less powerful, or outgoing legislators.

In fact, legislators who fit one of those categories are the only ones they will investigate.

Take the case of Senator Robert Ford. Ford made the headline-grabbing mistake of spending campaign funds at multiple adult superstores and on herbal male enhancement supplements. These, along with other violations, resulted in his resignation. The ethics committee took a hard stance against him – as it should have – but Ford was out. He was a former, not a present, lawmaker.

Contrast that with former Speaker Bobby Harrell. When Harrell was Speaker of the House and the Post and Courier revealed that he had spent several hundred thousand dollars of campaign money and couldn’t account for it, the House ethics committee did nothing. Harrell wasn’t resigning, and in the House you couldn’t get more powerful than him. It took a complaint lodged with the attorney general to make anything happen at all.

So that’s Cleary: outgoing and not in leadership. And Ford: outgoing and not in leadership. And Harrell: Not leaving and very powerful.

Now, one more example: Bill Chumley.

During the peak of the Affordable Care Act implementation fight, Chumley used the state plane to fly a George Mason University economics professor in to testify on a bill he, Chumley, had sponsored. Chumley’s campaign opponent filed an ethics complaint – seemingly looking to score some easy political points – and the ethics committee took case up. The committee found probable cause that the law was broken even though the House ethics committee’s attorney wrote a letter that what Chumley did was not in violation of the Ethics Act.

When powerful politicians use the state plane in questionable ways, the ethics committees sit on their hands. When guys like Chumley do it for reasons that may be ill-advised but clearly aren’t corrupt, they get the book thrown at them.

Phillip Cease is director of research at the South Carolina Policy Council