Bobby Harrell and the Intentional Murkiness of S.C. Ethics Laws

September 18, 2015

Inside Insight

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ariail watered down reform

For South Carolina lawmakers, “ethics reform” is about making it harder to fall afoul of the law

By JAMIE MURGUIA

If you paid even a little bit of attention to the 2015 legislative session, you know it produced mass quantities of “ethics reform” bills, and that none became law.

And that’s not a bad thing. The bills were, virtually without exception, weak and/or regressive. A few recent events demonstrate what I mean.

Consider recent developments in the long-running story of former Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell. It illustrates, as it always has, the reluctance or refusal of our lawmakers to do anything about anything on actual ethics reform. Earlier this month the House Ethics Committee voted to require Harrell to repay more than $113,000 to the General Fund. That’s the amount the committee ruled he had improperly used from his campaign account to pay attorney fees.

But here’s a question. Why did it take the committee more than a year after these questionable payments were made to tell the former lawmaker those payments were improper and needed to be repaid? Perhaps it’s because current ethics laws permit officials to use their campaign funds to pay fines and fees related to defending themselves against allegations of unethical behavior, and committee members just weren’t sure whether Harrell’s payments went beyond what that law allowed.

Or perhaps it’s because the committee was not equipped with the resources it needed to render a timely decision as to whether or not Harrell’s payments were beyond what was permitted by law. If the latter were true, it’s one of many reasons the House and Senate ethics committees should be eliminated. At the very least they should be prohibited from any participation in the investigation or adjudication of illegal and/or unethical behavior by their peers.

My money is on the first of these explanations: the law is murky, lawmakers know it’s murky, and they take advantage of its murkiness.

Unfortunately, however, no current proposal to reform our ethics laws would clarify the murky area in the law that allows elected officials to use campaign funds to pay for some legal expenses but not others. More importantly, lawmakers – based on their public statements anyway – don’t even see the need to end the practice.

If some of them want to get serious about making corruption more difficult, though, future legislation will have to entirely cut off the ability to use one’s campaign funds as their personal bank account – in effect, an insurance fund to be tapped in the event of getting caught.

All this aside, House members were quick to take a victory lap earlier this year when they passed H.3195, which would actually have legalized – repeat, legalized – the practice that led to Bobby Harrell’s $113,000 fine. That bill is currently sitting in the Senate Judiciary Committee awaiting a hearing.

The problem is that too many politicians, and especially state lawmakers, think the point of ethics reform is to loosen the law – to make it murkier, not clearer – so that they don’t get in trouble so easily. The reverse is the case, as citizens well know, and as citizens had better remind their elected representatives.