Scoppe: The nexus between two political bombshells

Associate EditorMay 8, 2012 

IT’S TEMPTING TO blame the political parties for the debacle that has thrown our elections into disarray, kicking nearly 200 Republican and Democratic candidates off the primary and general election ballots.

They certainly share the blame: Not only do they have an obligation to know what paperwork they have to collect from candidates, but both parties were reminded just two years ago that those candidates must turn in economic-disclosure reports during the filing period. A lawsuit was brought in 2010 to remove attorney general candidate Alan Wilson and adjutant general candidate Bob Livingston from the November ballot because State Ethics Commission records showed they didn’t file the reports until well after filing closed. We didn’t get a ruling then because just days before trial, the Ethics Commission certified that it had misdated the reports, which did come in on time, but with such a recent close call — targeting Republicans and promoted by Democrats — party officials should have had sense enough to second-guess this year’s official guidance that contradicted state law.

Of course, there’s no good reason for the parties to even be involved in filing. The law that requires candidates to file for office with party officials is a remnant of our old and discredited practice of having party-run primaries. Now that the state runs the primaries, candidates ought to be filing for office with the state.

But officials with the State Election Commission and the State Ethics Commission share blame as well, for presenting the law as it should be rather than as it is. Although both agencies make it clear that candidates must file a Statement of Economic Interest in order to get their names on the ballot, both say candidates merely have to “provide evidence” that they filed that report online with the state.

That seems completely logical. But as the Supreme Court pointed out last week, that’s not what state law says.

The problem is not that the law is ambiguous. It’s crystal clear. Too clear, one might argue: It says that a candidate who doesn’t already have a report on file with the state “must file a statement of economic interests for the preceding calendar year at the same time and with the same official with whom the candidate files a declaration of candidacy or petition for nomination.”

The problem is that there are is a closely related law involving the reports, which was recently changed. That law requires all public officials and candidates, beginning this year, to file disclosure reports online with the Ethics Commission. And as the court essentially said in its unanimous decision, the online filing requirement is irrelevant to the filing-for-office requirement.

Contrary to what some are suggesting, incumbents didn’t set a trap for challengers by having different requirements. There simply was no point in requiring people who already had a report on file to include a copy of it with their statement of candidacy and filing fee. It made all the sense in the world, on the other hand, to require people who hadn’t already completed the form to include one with their filing materials. That law has been on the books for two decades, and it never caused a problem before — though there are indications that it hasn’t always been obeyed.

Back to the current debacle. Once that online filing requirement went into effect, ethics and election officials figured that obeying that law exempted people from obeying the other law. And it should, by the same logic that incumbents don’t have to hand deliver a copy of their disclosure form to party officials. But it doesn’t.

This is where I’m supposed to talk about how important those disclosure reports are. And they are important. In theory. They tell voters about some of the candidates’ personal and business relationships with lobbyists, governmental entities and businesses that might create conflicts of interest. That — along with the fact that the law is the law and needs to be followed whether it’s important or not — is why I have no sympathy for candidates who didn’t bother to obey the law that required them to complete the report during the campaign filing season.

I do have sympathy for those people who filed the reports online, and on time, as state and party officials told them to do, but still got kicked off the ballot because they didn’t hand a paper copy to the party officials along with their filing fee and statement of intention to run. The Legislature needs to fix that.

Longer term, it needs to fix more than that. It needs to get the parties out of the filing business. And it needs to deal with those economic-disclosure reports, which coincidentally — or perhaps serendipitously — also were at the center of last week’s other blockbuster political decision.

On the same day the Supreme Court kicked the candidates off the ballot, the House Ethics Committee summarily dismissed charges that, among other things, Gov. Nikki Haley didn’t file all the information she should have about who was paying her while she was a member of the House. And the reason it dismissed that complaint is that state law didn’t require her to disclose that information.

The big shortcoming of the reporting requirement — which Ms. Haley intentionally brought to our attention before she inadvertently demonstrated its importance — is that it doesn’t require public officials to disclose all of their income. Or even all of it that matters. They only must report the money they receive from government, contractors that do business with the “governmental entity” for which they work and, in some limited circumstances, lobbyists and organizations that hire lobbyists.

That means that then-Rep. Haley didn’t have to report that she was paid $40,000 in consulting fees by a state government contractor who hired her for her “good contacts,” because the contractor didn’t hire a lobbyist, and didn’t contract with the House. And perhaps because, according to the twisted logic of the Ethics Commission, consulting fees aren’t “income” anyway because they’re not “salary.”

I used to think that full-income disclosure was too much to ask of part-time elected officials, but I have warmed to Ms. Haley’s position that the Legislature should require public officials to disclose all of the sources of their income, even if it doesn’t require them to report all the amounts.

The sad irony in all this is that, with the limited disclosure law we have now, those reports that the challengers got kicked off the ballot for not filing properly wouldn’t have told voters much of anything about their potential conflicts of interest.

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

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