S.C. General Assembly: The Palmetto State’s Most Exclusive Club
By Ashley Landess
Say what you will about the South Carolina General Assembly – and I’ve said plenty – it is one of the most egalitarian clubs you will ever find. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white, male or female, rich or poor – and it certainly doesn’t matter whether you have an “R” or a “D” after your name. Once you’re elected, you’re in the club. And once you’re in the club, you’re part of an exclusive, self-protective society of individuals who view state government as their own personal profit-making machine.
True, there are a few honorable exceptions to this rule, and although they’re depressingly rare, they can be found on both sides of the aisle. For the great majority, however, flagrant conflicts of interest aren’t unethical – they’re the whole point of getting elected in the first place. That’s why so many aspirant lawmakers are prepared to spend $50,000 to get a part-time job that pays – on paper at least – $10,400 a year.
What do these conflicts of interest look like?
If you’ve read The Nerve with any regularity over the last few years, the answer will be pretty familiar. Our reporters have uncovered lawmakers slipping appropriations into the state budget for their own nonprofit groups. They’ve revealed attempts by lawmakers to facilitate government land purchases for their friends at vastly inflated prices. They’ve chronicled long histories of self-enrichment at taxpayer expense – in one case finding millions in unreported state contracts with a firm headed by the Senate Finance chairman. They’ve reported on lawmakers who blatantly use their positions to insulate their own businesses from competition. And they’ve exposed the cash nexus between lobbyists, consultants and lawmakers – exposing one lawmaker’s practice, for instance, of hiring lobbyists as campaign “consultants” even while their lobbying clients write checks to his campaign account.
There are two fascinating points here. First, the shenanigans and misadventures cataloged at The Nerveare mostly legal under current South Carolina law. They may violate ethical principles, but our political class has gotten pretty adept at bending the state’s malleable ethics laws about as far as they can bend. The second and equally important point here is this: Just about every member of the General Assembly loudly insists that “ethics reform” is a “top priority.” And yet these same elected officials who enthusiastically embrace “ethics reform” and “transparency” and “accountability” consistently give The Nerve’s reporters more stories about corruption than they can keep up with.
The term “hypocrisy” probably gets thrown around too much in American politics, but sometimes no other word will do.