Ethics Reform: Lip Service or Legislation?

December 27, 2012

Investigative Reports

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DirectionsThe ethics reform traveling circus made its final pre-Christmas stop last week before a special Senate committee; and while it is proving to be a popular show, whether the eventual receipts add up to legislation or lip service remains very much to be seen.

So far, four separate committees have spent tens, if not yet hundreds, of hours convening, hearing testimony and (presumably) taking notes in anticipation of drafting legislation to be filed sometime after the General Session convenes Jan. 8.

In addition to the Senate ethics reform committee, Gov. Nikki Haley appointed an 11-member special task force; and in the House, majority leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, and minority leader Harry Ott, D-Calhoun, each has appointed panels.

What appears obvious from all these efforts is that from the Governor’s Office to the floors of the House and Senate, lawmakers are eager for their constituents to know they hear – loud and clear – the message that voters are sick of lax ethics laws, dubious and secretive investigations, and a system of self-policing so bald in its partiality that only the most egregious and obvious cases of abuse – former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard’s indictment, for example, on campaign finance charges – are prosecuted, and even then only after tremendous amounts of public pressure have been applied.

“During the past year, South Carolina citizens have been surprised to discover what is legal within the current ethics framework and how inadequate and politicized the enforcement mechanisms seem to be,” Lynn Teague, advocacy director of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, told the Senate committee on Dec. 19. “South Carolina benefits from the service of many women and men of integrity, but our current laws have substantial gaps that can easily be used to circumvent compliance.”

Just as embarrassing for lawmakers was a recent report by the Center for Public Integrity that gave South Carolina a grade of “F” on its “Corruption Risk Report Card,” and ranked it 45th in the country for its “weak asset disclosure law, loophole-ridden campaign finance regulations, and toothless ethics commission.”

Appearing at the second public hearing in seven days, John Crangle of Common Cause of South Carolina, S.C. Deputy Attorney General Barry Bernstein and Teague addressed Senate ethics reform committee members Sens. Wes Hayes, R-York (chair); Joel Lourie, D-Richland; Larry Martin, R-Pickens; Tom Davis, R-Beaufort; and Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington.

Together they gave much the same testimony provided before the governor’s Commission on Ethics Reform a week earlier, focusing on campaign finance disclosure by legislators, lobbyists and contributors; open-records enforcement; eliminating leadership political action committees; protecting whistle blowers; securing sufficient annual funding for the State Ethics Commission; and enhancing the transparency of the House and Senate ethics procedures, among other suggestions.

That ethics reform hasn’t been seriously addressed in Columbia in 20 years (and only then after another egregious scandal, Operation Lost Trust, focused unwanted national scrutiny on the State House) has even those skeptical of lawmakers’ intentions hopeful that meaningful change can come, if for no other reason than some legislators seem to want it.

They include Sens. Martin and Hayes, who both were targets of campaign ads in the November elections from political action committees immune from public disclosure requirements because of a controversial 2010 federal court ruling.

“Two senators on this committee were the victims of attacks by undisclosed money,” Crangle said, referring to Malloy and Martin. “You didn’t know where the money was coming from; you didn’t know how much money was being spent; and you didn’t know how it was being spent.

“The public has a right to know where that money is coming from.”

Lyn Odom, director of research for the committee, said that prior to last week’s public hearing he already had been busy gathering suggestions from various House and Senate committees and the Attorney General’s Office in preparation for drafting legislation for the upcoming session.

“Some of the key components we’ve been looking at are amending the definition of a ‘committee’ so that the definition is constitutional,” Odom said. “Ever since the Citizens for Life decision in 2010, (political action) committees have not been subject to disclosure filings in S.C.”

For the committee, its marching orders are clear.

“It’s our job, ultimately, to put together a piece of legislation,” Lourie said. “Not one that will necessarily pass, but one we think is comprehensive and will get out of committee and to the floor for a vote.”

First, however, the committee will wait to see what suggestions the governor’s committee proposes in its report – scheduled for release Jan. 28 – in order to avoid redundancies and give the legislation the best chance at passing, said Hayes, the immediate past chairman of the standing Senate Ethics Committee.

“I don’t want us to be criticized after the fact for rushing to judgment,” Malloy said. “Our work has to be inclusive. A good bill does not need several months to pass. A good product, a good bill, will stand on its own whenever it’s filed.”

Getting ethics reform right this time is important for one very practical reason, said Martin, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman and former Senate Rules Committee chairman,

“There’s probably no expectation that once we have this debate that it’ll be talked about for another 20 years,” he said.

Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809 or at ron@thenerve.com.