Window-Dressing Ethics Reform
By Ashley Landess
Watching the gaggle of South Carolina politicians perform like competing cheerleaders with their versions of “Yaaaaay ethics!” might be entertaining under different circumstances. If our state were not controlled by the nation’s most powerful, least accountable politicians, perhaps listening to the good ol’ gang tell us how serious they are about making themselves behave ethically would be worth a hearty laugh and an eye-roll. But the cost of their concentrated power and government secrecy is too high in South Carolina. Our state is crumbling under the weight of it. This fight is way past tweaking ethics laws – it’s about full-blown corruption, and it’s time elected officials took it seriously.
Politicians in this state have made it clear they won’t change the system that allows them to operate in secret, hide their income sources (and thus their personal gain in office), police themselves (and actually argue that the constitution says they have to), concentrate power in the hands of leaders elected by only a small percentage of the population, and ignore – and even violate – state law regularly and with impunity.
What’s the cost of corruption – whether legal or illegal – in our state? Our roads are falling apart in most counties while legislative leaders funnel millions to their own districts. Politicians make money from state contracts, give away billions to corporations in secret, appoint family members to high government positions, and pass laws that give them an advantage in their private businesses.
Our state will never be free as long as power is concentrated in the hands of a few legislative leaders who aren’t elected statewide, and as long as they operate in secrecy. Proposals by politicians that claim to address “ethics” reform do little to change the deep, systemic problem of our corrupt government structure. South Carolina is home to the most legal corruption in the nation and the fewest consequences for politicians who ignore – and even violate – the law.
The governor and legislative leaders have taken turns unveiling their so-called plans to raise ethics standards. None of them is comprehensive. Rather, these different proposals take bits and pieces of the reform agenda introduced last year by SCPC and our coalition allies that included grassroots activists, environmental groups and civil rights leaders. That path to liberty was about separation of powers and transparency – the recipe for freedom that our nation’s founders relied on as the core foundation of our Republic. What did our politicians propose? Instead of full transparency, full income disclosure, and an end to self-policing, the Speaker of the House offered a bill to decriminalize all ethics violations and to force all citizens to register to lobby if they wanted to testify before any public body, including their school board. That bill was supported by Governor Haley, who never revealed whether she had read it or not before coming out in favor of it (the bill was kept secret until it passed full committee).
A bill supported by Haley and Senate leaders would provide income disclosure but would still preserve the ridiculous system of legislators being judged by each other for violating state ethics law. Senior senators argue that the state constitution says they have the right to make their own rules and discipline themselves (which is true, but only for internal matters pertaining to the body – nowhere does it say senators get to police themselves with regard to state law!), and they have made it clear they’ll not give up that prerogative. The current bill touted by the governor and senate leaders appears to allow the state ethics commission to investigate lawmakers but not to discipline them. Furthermore, legislators would be allowed to put appointments on the state ethics commission, thus making the system even worse than it is now.
What all of this makes clear is that politicians aren’t interested in truly tearing down the system that makes our state among the nation’s poorest and least educated. The ethics laws are designed to protect us, not politicians. Politicians must not be allowed to drive the “ethics” reform debate. We need to step up and do that on our terms. Fortunately, a coalition of citizens from all over the state is prepared to do that. As long as we stand firm, we can take back the power to force them to do what a large majority of citizens want them to do – tear down the secrecy and end the ability to profit from office.