House Ethics Committee Rubber Stamping More Sketchy Practices

November 5, 2015

Investigative Reports

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Ethics Panel okays using campaign money for ‘gifts,’ doing business with caucuses. Says ‘no’ to buying hearing aid batteries.

A year ago today, The Nerve’s Rick Brundrett published an important piece on what House and Senate ethics committees have been doing for the last several years.

The answer: not much.

That’s if you go by the number of advisory opinions issued by the committees. These are written statements issued by the committees to their respective chambers – i.e. to the full House or Senate – in order to advise members about what is and isn’t permissible under current ethics laws.

Brundrett found that from 2005 to 2012, the House Ethics Committee issued exactly one opinion. Of course, the following year – 2013 – was the year in which a complaint filed by the South Carolina Policy Council (The Nerve’s parent organization) led to an investigation of the House Speaker by the Attorney General. They had some work to do that year.

The Senate Ethics Committee, meanwhile, was even more lethargic. Most years the committee issued no opinions. None had been issued since 2007.

So – what have the committees been doing since last year’s story?

During the 2015 session, the Senate, unsurprisingly, didn’t issue any opinions (though it did issue public reprimands of two Senate candidates – and current House members – Cezar McKnight and Carl Anderson).

The House, meanwhile, issued two advisory opinions in 2015.

In the first – issued on Monday, November 2 – the committee concludes that “donating to the Blatt Building’s custodial staff and House staff and purchasing flowers for staff members and constituents” (emphasis added) is a permissible use of campaign funds. The opinion doesn’t indicate which member requested it, but we suspect it was Rep. Alan Clemmons. Why? Because Rep. Clemmons – as The Nerve revealed in December of 2014 – had used campaign money to purchase an extraordinary number of scarves and ties and various other accoutrements to constituents, “various dignitaries,” and State House staff. (Nor is Clemmons the only campaign-funded Santa Claus in the State House. Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman engages in the same practice.)

Now, according to the opinion, that’s perfectly permissible.

Should it be? We italicized the word “and constituents” because the practice of using campaign money to buy “gifts” for constituents doesn’t seem very far removed from buying their votes.

What about the second House opinion? This one, adopted on October 12, holds that the Ethics Act – and specifically section 8-13-700, which forbids public officials from knowingly using their office for financial gain – does not apply to the activity of a member of the House “who is also a member of a legislative caucus and who earns income from doing business with that caucus.”

Evidently a lawmaker has been doing business with the House Republican Caucus – we suspect some kind of “consulting” work or perhaps supplying printed material – and wants the committee to determine if (or assure him/her that) this isn’t a violation of ethics law. We’ve known of lawmakers who use campaign money on their own business, and we know that legislative caucuses spend millions on undefined “operations” without disclosing anything about what they’re spending that money on – this despite the fact that their facilities are paid for by South Carolina taxpayers. So it’s entirely believable that a House member would do business with his or her caucus, and that the caucus would give its “business” to a State House insider rather than anyone else.

In any case, the House Ethics Committee has put the member’s conscience to rest. He/she may carry on as before.

There is one hopeful sign, however. A member has asked if he may purchase hearing aid batteries with campaign funds. (We are not making this up.) The conclusion? “The committee finds purchasing hearing aid batteries to be personal in nature, so a member may not use campaign funds for this expense.”

That’s our House Ethics Committee: always insisting that members abide by the strictest ethical standards. So no hearing aid batteries for you, old timer. Not with your campaign account card anyway. You’ll have to buy them yourself.