Scoppe: Who cares about campaign donor information?

Associate EditorApril 19, 2012 

POLITICAL parties are like blind hogs: They usually aren’t good for anything other than consuming resources and depositing the processed resources wherever they please, but occasionally they happen across a truffle.

Or violations of the law that needed to be discovered.

As was the case when a state Democratic Party official went through Gov. Nikki Haley’s campaign-donation reports and found six clear reporting violations (dozens to start with, but most have been cleared up) and hundreds of potential violations. Chairman Dick Harpootlian, whose party also helped uncover the reporting problems that eventually led to the indictment, resignation and conviction of then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard on campaign-finance violations, told Charleston’s Post and Courier that he considers it the opposition party’s responsibility to scrutinize the ethics compliance of state Republican leaders.

Of course that sort of thing is in Mr. Harpootlian’s DNA. If there’s anything the former prosecutor loves more than shooting verbal spitballs at Republicans, it’s catching them in political, ethical or legal imbroglios.

Still, on this rare occasion, he is absolutely right.

Although the State Ethics Commission reports that it has started reviewing statewide candidates’ disclosure forms more carefully since the Ard case, there’s only so much it can do as long as the Legislature keeps cutting its budget, which never was enough to pay for more than 10 employees. Even if it somehow manages to catch obvious reporting violations like the governor’s, that still leaves local elected officials, and legislators, largely unscrutinized.

And at a time when the much-maligned mainstream media no longer have the bodies to devote to such tedious work, what the state’s ethics watchdogs can’t get to is only going to get done by people who have a political or personal interest in a given official’s downfall.

That’s far better than nothing, and it’s something we all ought to welcome. Still, it’s miles short of ideal. The political parties don’t have a lot of extra hands and eyes (particularly not the Democratic Party, which has far, far more opposition officials to scrutinize than does the Republican Party), which means the scrutiny is, at best, hit and miss.

Just as the media didn’t give then-Gov. Mark Sanford’s campaign reports the scrutiny they deserved until the Argentine affair, Democrats didn’t start digging through Mr. Ard’s reports until there was already blood in the water, in the form of campaign expenditures and public comments that were so stupid that the Ethics Commission launched an investigation. The scrutiny of Gov. Haley’s reports was prompted by the facts that 1) she’s the governor in the post-Sanford era and 2) she has been dogged since the Republican gubernatorial primary with allegations of ethical improprieties.

Even if the Democrats had the time to birddog all the Republicans’ campaign reports (and if they did, the Republicans would find time to return the favor), it’s still unlikely that they would detect the people who deliberately hide or disguise illegal donations or expenditures, or make up donors. As I’ve written before, the only way we’re going to find those people is by serendipity of the Ard variety — or by giving the ethics watchdogs the resources and the mandate to conduct random audits, like the IRS does, to make sure all the money that flowed into and out of the campaign account was reported, and to make sure the names on the reports match up with names on bank records.

I’m not holding my breath.

Did the governor violate the law in failing to report donors’ addresses and failing to collect their occupations? Yes. Of course she did. Even if her campaign had been able to provide all of the missing information by now — and it has not — the Democrats counted 45 donors whose addresses were not included on her reports. That’s 45 violations of the law. They also counted 2,400 donors whose occupations were not listed — which was not a violation because candidates are not required to report occupations, but became one when the Ethics Commission asked for those occupations and the governor couldn’t provide them all.

Are these major violations? No. They might not even have been intentional, despite the Democrats’ allegation that the sheer number of them demonstrates intent. And certainly there is nothing at this point to indicate that they need to be turned over to the attorney general for a criminal investigation, as Democrats insist.

If the Ethics Commission stumbles upon additional, more serious problems, as happened with Mr. Ard, then there will be time to consider turning this into a criminal matter. But all indications are that the violations are, as Haley attorney Butch Bowers said, “routine” and “minor.” So it ought to be a simple and straightforward matter for the governor to report the correct information — or give away the donations where she can’t — pay a fine and put this behind her.

But “minor” means only that the violations involve inadequate reporting, rather than underlying actions that are in of themselves illegal. “Routine” means only that lots of people fail to report everything they’re supposed to.

That does not mean that the reporting is unnecessary, or that the violations are unimportant.

Although we have a lot of laws that don’t make sense, the campaign reporting law is not among them. It helps us discover patterns that might tempt elected officials to put the interests of their donors ahead of our interests.

It’s hard enough to get a complete picture of who’s bankrolling political candidates when they comply fully with the law, what with Howie Rich funneling money through his endless supply of obscurely named limited liability corporations, political action committees giving themselves such generic names as the S.C. Good Government Fund and the proliferation of “independent” campaign spending.

When candidates don’t even bother to give us their donors’ addresses, we have no way of knowing whether James Smith is the House Democrat from Columbia or someone we’ve never heard of from Spartanburg. We don’t know whether their benefactors are fellow South Carolinians or New Yorkers or Californians or Chinese. Without donors’ occupations, it becomes prohibitively difficult to figure out who’s being underwritten by the trial lawyers, or teachers, or the waste industry, or the re-emergent video gambling industry.

What we do with that information is up to each of us, and too many of us do nothing with it. But that should be our decision. When candidates don’t provide it, they cheat us of the basic facts that we need in order to act as informed voters.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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