MY LAST NERVE: Whose Ethics Are We Reforming, Anyway?

November 21, 2014

Inside Insight

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

House rulesCITIZENS ARE LYING TOO MUCH – IS THAT THE REAL PROBLEM?

In a column last month, I questioned the constitutionality of a proposed House rule sponsored by Rep. Kris Crawford (R-Florence) that would require any individual testifying before a House committee to meet extensive disclosure requirements about the organization he or she represents. During the subsequent meeting of the House Rules and Procedures Ad-Hoc Committee, several members expressed similar concerns about the proposal’s constitutionality, and the it was withdrawn – although not without a fight.

The proposal was withdrawn, however, only to be replaced by a similar proposal sponsored by Reps. Bruce Bannister (R-Greenville), Kris Crawford, and Alan Clemmons (R-Horry). That proposal would require anyone testifying before any House committee to first be sworn in by the presiding officer of the committee. Further, the new rule would allow any individual who “willfully gives false, materially misleading, or materially incomplete testimony under oath” to be found in “contempt of the General Assembly.” The law establishing “contempt of the General Assembly” allows for “a person who is convicted of or pleads guilty to contempt of the General Assembly is guilty of a felony and, upon conviction, must be fined within the discretion of the court or imprisoned for not more than five years, or both.”

Not everyone’s happy about the proposal. Rep. Jay Lucas (R-Darlington) – by most accounts the next Speaker of the House, and the appointer of the ad hoc committee – attended a recent meeting of the Spartanburg TEA Party (STP) in which he was asked a number of tough questions. Among them: What were his thoughts on this new rule?

When presenting Rep. Lucas with the concern from the members of the STP, organizer Karen Martin asked for his view of the matter, but not without first letting him know that the group “would not like that at all.” Rep. Lucas explained that the proposal was “a part of the rule changes that we’re looking to make in the House,” and that it is “one of the rules that we’re considering revisiting” – a response that was, for Martin, “encouraging.”

So this seems like a fair question to ask about the proposal. Is there a serious problem – or even a minor problem – with citizens lying when they come before their elected representatives to express concern or support for legislation before the General Assembly? Or is this intended merely to scare citizens away from putting their concerns before lawmakers, face to face?

I asked a pair of longtime activists, Karen Martin and Talbert Black, what they thought of the proposal.

Martin raised an excellent point I hadn’t thought of. Basically it was this: Would the proposal apply equally to lawmakers? “If there were penalties attached that do not also cover every syllable that any legislator utters, either in a committee or on the floor of their respective body,” she said, “then this is a higher bar for citizens than for legislators.”

There’s a practical unfairness about the proposal, too, says Martin. “Citizens don’t have the luxury of being able to consult onsite, at the ready, taxpayer provided counsel to ensure there is no unintentional misstatement.”

Black raised the possibility of abuse. “What is disturbing to me,” he observed, “is that this could be used as a tool to ‘go after’ witnesses the committee members may not like. The hearing is most often a platform for citizens to convey their thoughts and opinions, their stories about the possible effects of pending legislation. Knowing that any of their statements could provoke prosecution, that what they say could result in a five-year jail sentence and a felony conviction, would scare away most normal citizens from going anywhere near a committee hearing.”

Black, too, questions why State House politicians are suddenly worried about citizens lying. “If the House had a great reputation for fairness, equity, and openness,” he says, “maybe we would be having a different conversation about this. But with the long sordid history of intimidation, heavy handedness, and under the table dealing, no one should feel safe testifying before a committee with such an open ended rule in place.”

And bear in mind – Talbert Black knows what he’s talking about, having been the object of more than one reprisal.

This is only one of a series of proposals we can expect the House to take up during their Organizational Session December 2 and 3. Tell us your view in the comments below.