Public Often Left in Dark About Sanctions Against S.C. Lawmakers

September 24, 2012

Investigative Reports

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TransparencyS.C. House member Eric Bikas seemed surprised when informed Friday by The Nerve that state records listed a $4,500 ethics fine against him this year.

“I can’t image them issuing a fine and telling you about it without telling me about it,” said Bikas, R-Pickens.

The public, however, routinely is kept in the dark about sanctions imposed by the House and Senate Ethics committees against state lawmakers.

The committees, which police their own respective chambers for violations of state ethics laws, usually don’t release their sanctions publicly unless specifically asked for that information – or unless it’s a high-profile case in which they can’t easily escape public scrutiny.

Neither committee, for example, lists fines against lawmakers on the S.C. General Assembly’s website.

In contrast, the State Ethics Commission, which has jurisdiction over the state’s nine constitutional officers, including the governor; local elected officials; and lobbyists and their employers, posts rulings on its website. Many of the commission’s decisions, however, aren’t yet accessible online; the site notes that the web page is “still under construction.”

Contacted Friday, Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Wes Hayes, R-York, said he will push the 46-member Senate to have sanctions against senators posted online, noting, “At the Senate, that’s getting ready to change.”

The House Ethics Committee chairman, Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken, wasn’t as committed to the proposal when contacted Friday, though he told The Nerve  that it “could be something we could discuss this year.”

The Nerve has repeatedly pointed out the secrecy surrounding the legislative ethics committees, though there has been some movement over the past year toward more transparency.

The 124-member House earlier this year, for example, voted to change its chamber rules – mirroring a move last year by the Senate – to allow ethics cases against House members to become public if its ethics committee found probable cause of a violation. But neither chamber has specifically addressed making imposed sanctions easily available to the public, such as, for example, posting fines online.

“It’s just never been considered since I’ve been on the (House) Ethics Committee, to my knowledge,” Smith said.

The Nerve last week requested and obtained sanction lists – mostly small fines for late filings of required campaign- or income-disclosure forms – from the two legislative ethics committees.

Bikas, who The Nerve reported in July was paid more than $12,500 in legislative salary and expense reimbursements from January through June despite accumulating unexcused absences for virtually all of this year’s legislative session, had the highest-listed fine among the seven House members and three senators who have received fines since January.

The House Ethics Committee records listed Bikas as owing a $4,500 fine as of Wednesday for a late July 2012 quarterly campaign-disclosure report. No report for that month is listed on the State Ethics Commission website, though Bikas filed those forms in January and April, according to the website.

Bikas, a 26-year-old restaurateur who was first elected to the House in 2010,  told The Nerve on Friday that he planned to contact Smith, the House Ethics Committee chairman, about the listed $4,500 fine. He said he was surprised that he didn’t receive prior notice of that amount, noting that in other instances regarding fines, a committee staffer has texted him in advance to “clear this up.”

Contacted Sunday, Smith told The Nerve that Bikas had not contacted him about the $4,500 fine. As of Wednesday, Bikas had not filed the required July campaign-disclosure form, he added.

Bikas also received a reprimand from the House Ethics Committee on March 15 for failing to pay a $100 fine for a late July 2011 campaign-disclosure report, according to a copy of the reprimand letter provided last week to The Nerve.

“I definitely paid that one,” Bikas said Friday.

The Nerve reported last year that over the prior three years, the House Ethics Committee had levied a total of $6,000 in fines to 27 current or former House members for late filings of campaign- or income-disclosure forms. Smith said Friday that “number is trending down,” adding, “That has been my goal from the beginning – to get that number down to zero.”

After Bikas, the House member receiving the highest fine this year was Rep. Tracy Edge, R-Horry, who received a $1,900 fine for a late July 2012 quarterly campaign-disclosure report; and a separate $110 fine for a late April 2012 campaign-disclosure report. The $1,900 fine has not been paid; the smaller fine was paid on April 26, records show.

Edge told The Nerve on Sunday he had trouble with the July report because he was trying to get the State Ethics Commission to fix what he described as a software problem with the online reporting form, which he noted resulted in inaccurate information listed about his campaign. The problem remains unresolved, he said.

Still, Edge acknowledged, “I’m not going to claim to be the best in the world on deadlines on this stuff.”

State Ethics Commission records show that Edge filed a primary election campaign-disclosure form on June 2, though the online records do not list the required July report, which covers the previous three-month campaign period.

Under state law, elected officials and candidates can be fined $100 for missing deadlines to file their campaign-disclosure reports or statements of economic interest, which list public sources of income. The fine increases to $10 per day for the first 10 days after formal notice has been given that a report is late, and $100 for each additional day the required form is not filed, up to a maximum $5,000 per form.

Under a change in state law last year, the State Ethics Commission can pursue criminal charges against those who fail to file required forms and reach the maximum civil penalty. But the commission has no legal authority to punish state lawmakers who file their forms late or not at all – or for any other ethical violation.

So far this year, Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, has received the largest fine – $950 – from the Senate Ethics Committee. He was cited for violating a state campaign law by accepting a  $20,000 campaign loan in 2008 from a private individual – $19,000 above the legal limit in those situations, according to committee records.

Martin told The Nerve on Friday that when he was a first-time candidate for the Senate in 2008, a Senate Ethics Committee staffer advised him he could accept the $20,000 loan so long as the private-individual lender made the same offer to other candidates. He said he reported the loan on his campaign-disclosure forms as required by law, and repaid the loan with interest.

Martin said he wasn’t informed about any problems with the loan until a Democratic lawmaker earlier this year gave him an anonymous letter alleging that he had violated state law by accepting the loan. He said he quickly arranged a meeting with Hayes, the Senate Ethics Committee chairman, and informed him about the situation.

The committee met on April 26 and fined Martin $950 after concluding that the loan violated state ethics law, according to a May 1 letter from Hayes to Martin, a copy of which was provided last week to The Nerve. In the letter, Hayes said the committee “reasoned that staff members lack authority to authorize or permit acts that are expressly prohibited by the State’s ethics laws, and reliance upon advice by staff is not a valid defense to an alleged violation.”

Martin told The Nerve he wouldn’t have accepted the loan had he known it was against the law, but that he relied at the time on staff advice.

“I paid that $950 out of my personal account,” he said. “I wasn’t going to use campaign funds.”

Following is a list of the lawmakers fined this year, according to House and Senate Ethics committee records:

  • Rep. Eric Bikas, R-Pickens – $4,500 (late filing of July 2012 campaign-disclosure report);
  • Rep. Tracy Edge, R-Horry – $1,900 (late filing of July 2012 campaign-disclosure report);
  • Rep. Tracy Edge, R-Horry – $110 (late filing of April 2012 campaign-disclosure report);
  • Rep. Karl Allen, D-Greenville – $100 (late filing of July 2012 campaign-disclosure report);
  • Rep. Boyd Brown, D-Fairfield – $100 (late filing of January 2012 campaign-disclosure report);
  • Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland – $100 (late filing of January 2012 campaign-disclosure report);
  • Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York – $100 (late filing of July 2012 campaign-disclosure report);
  • Rep. David Tribble, R-Laurens – $100 (late filing of 2012 statement-of-economic-interests report);
  • Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg – $950 (excess contribution resulting from a campaign loan);
  • Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Fairfield  – $110 (late filing of campaign-disclosure report); and
  • Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens – $110 (late filing of campaign-disclosure report).

All of the fines, except for the $4,500 fine against Bikas and the $1,900 fine against Edge, have been paid, ethics committee records show. None of the fined lawmakers sits on either ethics committee.

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