House Ethics Fines: Lack of Transparency?

February 17, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveNearly $22,000 in ethics fines is sitting in a special S.C. House account, though the House Ethics Committee chairman says he doesn’t know who paid the fines.

Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken, told The Nerve last week that the fines stemmed from late filings of required ethics forms by current or former House members, or House candidates. But when asked by The Nerve for a list of those who have been fined over the past several years, Smith at first said he couldn’t provide it.

“There are no records if we notify a person they are late,” he said, referring to situations in which offenders immediately pay their fines, which he contended is the norm.

But Smith on Wednesday afternoon told The Nerve that he “misspoke” when contacted initially, and that his office does keep records of who paid the fines, though he added he has never seen the list.

Smith said an Ethics Committee staff member on Tuesday delivered the list to House Clerk Charles Reid, who, according to Smith, was supposed to review it before releasing it to The Nerve. But The Nerve had not received it by publication of this story.

When asked initially by The Nerve, Smith did reveal details of a reprimand given in a late-filing-fee case involving his opponent in the June Republican primary election, though he denied having any conflict of interest in the matter.

Under the S.C. Constitution, the House and Senate police their own members, which critics contend compromises objectivity and accountability.

A separate state agency, the S.C. Ethics Commission, handles ethical complaints against the state’s nine elected constitutional officers, including the governor; a select group of appointed high-ranking state employees; and local elected officials.

In contrast to the House Ethics Committee, the Senate Ethics Committee and the S.C. Ethics Commission released their respective lists of those who received late-filing fines in recent years upon The Nerve’srequest last week.

The Nerve’s review of cash status reports from the S.C. Comptroller General’s Office found that a House account, labeled “Ethics Committee Revenue,” grew to $21,889 as of Jan. 20 from $11,727 at the start of the fiscal year on July 1, an increase of nearly 87 percent.

Smith said the hike doesn’t surprise him.

“We just went through a general election and the primaries,” he said. “There were more than House members involved in that. Candidates were involved.”

Under state law, elected officials and candidates can be fined $100 if their campaign disclosure reports or statements of economic interests are not filed within five days after established deadlines.

If formal notice has been given, the fine increases to $10 per day for the first 10 days after the notice has been given; and $100 for each additional day the required form is not filed.

Campaign disclosure forms and statements of economic interests are important because they allow the public to monitor who might be trying to influence officials’ votes.

Smith said none of the House fines goes to his committee, but he didn’t know who controls the House account or how that money is spent.

The Nerve in a story last week reported on House and Senate financial accounts, though neither the clerks nor top leaders of the chambers responded to written questions about any of the accounts.

In the Senate, late-filing fines paid by senators are not held in a separate account but are returned to the state’s general fund, Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York and the Senate Ethics Committee chairman, told The Nerve. 

Hayes’ office last week released a list of 11 people who were assessed a total of $3,440 in late-filing penalties from 2008 through 2010. Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Jasper, led the list with $1,490 in fines last year.

The S.C. Ethics Commission released a spreadsheet to The Nerve showing about 1,200 cases in fiscal years 2009 and 2010 in which elected officials, candidates, lobbyists and their firms or organizations they work for were fined for late filings of required ethics forms.

The amount of authorized fines for the two fiscal years totaled $144,600. The commission last fiscal year collected $107,008 in late-filing penalties, commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood told The Nerve last week.

The Senate last month changed its rules to allow senators to be fined up to $2,000 for “non-technical” ethical violations, which doesn’t include late-filing violations. The chamber also will now make any allegations against senators a matter of public record upon a probable cause finding by the Senate Ethics Committee, under the resolution (S. 326), which was sponsored by Hayes.

A new state law establishes the probable cause standard in S.C. Ethics Commission cases, which doesn’t apply to lawmakers. Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, has filed a joint resolution (S. 324) calling for a constitutional amendment that would allow the Ethics Commission to investigate legislators.

The House has yet to follow the Senate’s lead on rule changes. Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland and the House Judiciary Committee chairman, last month filed a resolution (H. 3445) establishing the probable-cause standard and fines for “non-technical” violations by House members, though it hasn’t been acted on yet. Smith is a co-sponsor of the resolution.

Harrison in an e-mail last week to The Nerve said he didn’t believe the House Rules Committee had met yet, but that Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson and the committee chairman, informed him that the committee would take up the resolution when it meets.

Smith said the six-member House Ethics Committee has the authority to issue reprimands for ethical violations, though he noted that he can sign reprimands in late-filing fee cases investigated by his staff and authorized by the committee.

Asked by The Nerve if he ever did that, Smith said a reprimand signed by him was issued to his opponent in the Republican primary last June. He said the reprimand was issued after his opponent, whom he did not name, wrote a check for a late-filing fine but later stopped payment on the check.

Smith denied he had any conflict of interest in the situation, noting the reprimand was issued after the election, which he easily won.

“I didn’t do it, but I signed the paperwork,” Smith said. “It came from the (Ethics Committee) staff.”

Contacted last week by The Nerve, the opponent, Susan Swanson of North Augusta, confirmed that she had received a reprimand. She said she was fined $100 for not filing her statement of economic interests online by an April 15 deadline, though she added that she mailed the paperwork overnight after filing for the House seat by the March 31 deadline.

Swanson said she didn’t believe Smith used the situation to his advantage in the election. But she blames Smith, as chairman of the Ethics Committee and Aiken County legislative delegation, for allegedly failing to inform the state or local Republican Party about the online filing requirement, adding the party never informed her about it.

“Roland should be sending changes (about ethics laws) to the party,” she said.

Swanson said she canceled the check she wrote for the late-filing fine because she believed she met the requirement of the law after she had filed online.

Smith said Wednesday that his staff informed Swanson of the online filing requirement after she filed her paper copies. He said last week that his staff “works diligently” to make sure late-filing fines are paid “before we even think about issuing a reprimand.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.