Scoppe: Secrecy plus concentrated power: A formula for corruption?

Associate EditorSeptember 6, 2012 

LAST WEEK, Coastal Conservation League Executive Director Dana Beach denounced the Transportation Infrastructure Bank as Exhibit A of political corruption in our state, pointing to its decision to fund a controversial Charleston County road project with money it doesn’t have and its record of steering the bulk of its billions of dollars to the home counties of the board members and the politicians who appointed them.

The next day, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called his own news conference to denounce Mr. Beach as “reckless” and “out of line” for using such incendiary terminology, explaining that steering money to your district is “exactly what elected officials do in a representative democracy: They represent their constituents.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the first challenge facing a bizarre coalition of groups pushing a broad-ranging government reform agenda: They have to redefine what we think of as “corruption.”

Mr. Riley, one of the most honorable people I’ve ever known, was understandably insulted that a project he supports had been sullied with such an ugly term. That’s because, like most of us, he thinks of corruption as something illegal.

But while “bribery or similar dishonest dealings” is among its meanings, the first definition of corruption is “impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle.” That is, doing something that’s wrong, whether it’s illegal or not. It’s akin to the definition of a moral person as someone who does what’s right even when no one is looking.

Spreading hurtful gossip is a sin, but it isn’t a crime. Likewise, a lot of the things that our governor did as a House member were unethical, but not illegal. And, S.C. Policy Council President Ashley Landess argues, there’s a lot that’s corrupt about our government that’s legal.

“They make the laws,” Ms. Landess says of legislators. “So of course nothing they do is illegal.”

In fact, you might say the biggest crime about our ethics law is that so much unethical behavior is not a crime. Or that the most corrupt thing about our political system is that so much corruption is legal. Tolerated. Expected.

As in, perhaps, letting six legislators and four laymen decide who gets to run for judicial posts, and then sitting back and watching as two of those legislative slots are filled by the yin and yang of obstructionist bullies in the Senate, Jake Knotts and Robert Ford.

As in allowing the chairmen of the legislative budget committees to have equal say with the governor and two other statewide officials in overseeing state procurement, personnel management, information technology and other central administrative duties.

As in allowing two Charleston County legislators to appoint four of the seven members of an Infrastructure Bank that committed road-building credit it doesn’t even have yet on a project in their home county.

To Ms. Landess, who put together the coalition of libertarian, tea party and environmental activists pushing the “Reclaiming the Power” agenda, the Infrastructure Bank is a classic example of how the Legislature has corrupted our government.

“A bank,” she says, incredulously. “A bank. Run by a couple of politicians. That’s the problem with everything in this state: When you say it out loud … I mean really, Jake Knotts is one of the ten people who pick our judges. The Senate Finance chairman gets one fifth of the power to run our state by virtue of seniority and alphabetical order. It’s crazy. And we don’t always see the crazy. We don’t always stop and get back out of the weeds and see the results.”

The reason it’s so hard to think of our problem as corruption is that it’s a systemic corruption that is abetted by individuals who probably wouldn’t dream of doing anything illegal. House Speaker Bobby Harrell and then-Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell wouldn’t have appointed four of the members of the Infrastructure Bank board if it were against the law to do that. Mr. McConnell wouldn’t have appointed Mr. Knotts and Mr. Ford to the Judicial Merit Selection Commission if that were against the law. Gov. Nikki Haley wouldn’t have solicited donations for her employer from lobbyists who needed her vote if that had been against the law.

Ms. Landess sees secrecy and concentration of power as the sure-fire recipe for corruption, so her cure melds sunshine and separation of powers into an agenda for reform: Let the governor appoint judges, so they aren’t beholden to the Legislature; put the governor in charge of the executive branch, so we can hold someone accountable for how it works; put an independent body in charge of enforcing ethics laws, rather than letting legislators police themselves; require all elected officials to report their income, so we are aware of their conflicts of interest; eliminate loopholes in the Freedom of Information Act, subject legislators to its provisions and strengthen its enforcement. (She also wants to shorten the legislative session and make legislators follow the governor’s first-draft budget, the wisdom of which I have not been convinced.)

“We have to stop allowing this absurd level of accountability, which is nonexistent, and this ridiculous notion that everything they do is legal because they say it is and they can,” she told me last week. “If we don’t push back and take charge, we will always live with the idea that we should live with what they tell us they’re going to do, as if we have no more control over that than we do the weather.”

Ultimately, we have the political system that we have because we have tolerated it, but Ms. Landess thinks that’s changing. As cause and evidence, she points to the state Supreme Court ruling that kicked 250 candidates off the ballot — and drove an unprecedented number of them to work their way back onto the ballot via petition.

“Who would have thought you would have gotten three hundred thousand activists signing petitions that got eighty-something Republicans and seventy-something Democrats back on the ballot,” she said. “I think people get it. They absolutely get that they lost their election, and they understand why now.”

Where Ms. Landess fails is in making the case that the court’s decision had anything to do with corruption. If anything I see it as the opposite of corruption: a court that did its job of insisting that candidates obey a ridiculous law, despite the justices’ strong desire not to do that.

But she’s right about what happened at the State House after the court’s decision: “The system was so broken that it went on autopilot. Even those who honestly tried to fix it couldn’t, and they couldn’t really explain why it couldn’t be fixed. The system went crazy.”

Truth be told, I don’t know that the Legislature could have fixed this mess even if every plank of the Reclaiming the Power agenda had been in place. But maybe it could have. And even if it couldn’t, we’d have a much better government, that is more intent on serving our interests.

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

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