Scoppe: Flawed ethics laws aren’t all that make us corruptible

Associate EditorJune 27, 2012 

IN THE THREE months since the Center for Public Integrity said South Carolina was more susceptible to political corruption than all but five other states, there has been a fair amount of discussion and far too many reminders of our most obvious shortcomings:

We don’t make elected officials tell us enough about their sources of income to be able to identify potential conflicts of interest.

We let our legislators police their own ethics compliance.

We refuse to spend enough on ethics enforcement to allow watchdogs to do a thorough job.

Our loophole-riddled campaign finance laws, layered atop increasingly pro-corruption federal court rulings, make it easy for individuals, groups and businesses to exert inordinate influence on our lawmakers’ election campaigns, often without adequate public disclosure.

But the report relied on a much broader definition of corruptibility than we usually consider, reaching well beyond ethics rules for politicians and campaign-finance law to include public information, budgeting, purchasing, hiring and regulatory practices. Although I’m not convinced that every one of the 330 measures in the evaluation is necessary to protect us from corruption, I think it’s worth considering several of the protective elements that we lack.

On topic after topic, we got failing grades because we don’t appoint and evaluate regulators or even rank-and-file civil servants according to professional criteria. We don’t protect watchdogs from political influence or interference. We do little or nothing to prevent hiring, firing and promotions based on “nepotism (favorable treatment of family members), cronyism (favorable treatment of friends and colleagues), or patronage (favorable treatment of those who reward their superiors).”

Even if the traditional South Carolina practice of making decisions based on who you know rather than what you know doesn’t always lead to corruption, it certainly encourages inefficiency and waste, which we never should have tolerated and now simply cannot afford. And yet, it’s so engrained in our culture that it doesn’t usually occur to us to even think about it unless it involves, say, the governor — and even then most of us yawn and change the subject.

The report, the result of more than six months of reporting by journalists in each state, also is useful for looking beyond the laws on our books to how they are applied. Of course, how they are applied can be subjective, and I disagree with some of the assessments, but still this adds a valuable layer of context to the report.

For instance, the report says that “In law, civil servants who report cases of corruption, graft, abuse of power, or abuse of resources are protected from recrimination or other negative consequences” 100 percent of the time. But it says that in practice, they’re never protected. That clearly is an exaggeration, but probably not as much of one as we’d like to think.

The first question about budget processes — “Can the legislature provide input to the state budget?” — would strike most people who understand our government as laughable. And yet, we scored only 75 percent (compared to a national average of 92 percent) because of the dichotomy between law and practice. Or perhaps between appearance and reality.

In practice, the report says, “significant public expenditures (defined as any project costing more than 1% of the total state budget) require legislative approval” only half the time. Think of the Department of Transportation, as a start; and think of the disastrous consequences of the Legislature’s hands-off approach to highway decisions. In practice, the report says, “the legislature has sufficient capacity to monitor the budget process and provide input or changes” just 75 percent of the time. Actually, I’d put that figure lower, and it’s going to stay low until the Legislature agrees to turn itself into a legislature — and turn the governor into a governor.

Speaking of governors, it might seem surprising that we managed to score as high as 47 percent (compared to the national average of 73 percent) on executive accountability. That’s because the report doesn’t define gubernatorial “accountability” in terms of a governor having power so we can hold her accountable for her actions. Instead, it focuses on having laws in place to prevent governors from misbehaving, which hasn’t been a priority for the Legislature because our governors have so little power.

We scored zeroes for having no restrictions on the governor and Cabinet directors setting up think tanks and other non-profits that can be used to reward political supporters or evade campaign finance rules; no disclosure requirements for such entities; and no regulations to prevent nepotism, cronyism and patronage — all of which are considered standard operating procedure in our government. We scored 25 percent on the governor giving reasons for policy decisions and limiting the use of executive orders to establish new policies. That last score is among the few in the report that might have been a good bit different a few years ago, as our current governor has stretched the envelope with executive orders.

Above all, the report puts a high premium on transparency, which has become all the rage when it comes to spending decisions but still hasn’t quite caught on for its broader applications.

All 14 categories in the report include questions about public access, in law and in practice, to information. And one category is devoted entirely to public information. Perhaps most tellingly, that’s where we scored worst, with a bottom-dragging 22 percent.

Although we scored a perfect 100 percent for legal access to government information — which is surprising given the many loopholes in our open-records law — we lost points because the law is toothless: There is no administrative right of appeal when access is denied, no entity that monitors the application of public-information laws, no enforcement tools for the non-existent monitoring agency.

For those of us who believe in the value of sunshine as the ultimate political disinfectant, there’s nothing new or surprising about the fact that our state is allergic to sunlight and impervious to good-government reforms. The two go hand-in-hand, the former propelling the latter. And like most of the individual shortcomings, they are a reflection of deep-rooted pathologies in our political culture that will not be cured until we become more engaged and organized about demanding it.

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

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