Scoppe: Former AGs McMaster, Medlock serious about ethics reform

Associate EditorNovember 27, 2012 

— IN 1970, THE S.C. HOUSE adopted an internal rule requiring its members to report “the nature and source” of all income they received representing clients before state agencies, and directly from utilities, banks, insurance companies, bars, manufacturers, other state-regulated businesses, and any other entities that employed lobbyists.

If that doesn’t sound like a big deal, then you haven’t read our current income-disclosure law.

And you haven’t talked with former Attorney General Travis Medlock, one of a handful of Young Turks who backed House leaders into a corner in the winter of 1970, making it impossible for them to oppose the change.

“It was real disclosure,” Mr. Medlock said, even though the requirement that representatives report the amount of income they received was stripped from the final version. “I know that because of the anger that was in that chamber during the debate.”

The memory of that debate was front and center when I met over lunch with Mr. Medlock and former Attorney General Henry McMaster to discuss their plans as co-chairmen of a commission Gov. Nikki Haley created last month to propose an overhaul of our ethics, campaign finance and open-government laws.

I have no idea how sincere the governor or legislators are about their pledges to toughen our ethics law, beyond addressing their own pet issues, which vary greatly from one person to the next. And really, there’s no point in speculating; we’ll find out over the coming months, as the Legislature either improves or doesn’t improve our law, and the governor plays either a positive or a negative role in that process.

But the two men the governor tapped to produce a roadmap for reform are dead serious about their task, and their topic. Mr. Medlock traces his ethics lineage to that groundbreaking House rule. Mr. McMaster traces his political lineage to his days as U.S. attorney for South Carolina, where he prosecuted a vote-buying scheme in Dillon County that brought down then-Sen. Gene Carmichael.

Both are convinced that more reporting — of income, of campaign donations, of campaign spending — must be central to any reform. Both realize that at least ethics investigations of legislators and, if they can get past overwrought constitutional concerns, enforcement must be taken away from legislative bodies and turned over to an independent ethics commission. Both realize that they are going to have to sell legislators on their ideas. (That seems obvious, but the governor doesn’t always recognize such things, which makes it extra-important that they do.) And both are aggressively seeking out suggestions, rather than waiting for people to show up at their public hearings, which kick off at 6 this evening in the Brown Building on the State House grounds.

“Anybody who’s got an idea or a study or a document of any kind, we want to get it,” Mr. McMaster said.

Mr. Medlock said three questions will animate their review: What works in the current laws? What doesn’t work? And how can those flaws be corrected?

What happened to Mr. Medlock’s House rule is instructive in answering those questions and others.

First, it reminds us that, like nearly all public-policy questions, increased income-reporting doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition. This is important because many of our part-time legislators understandably balk at having to disclose not only where they get their money but how much they get.

I don’t think the 1970 requirement is sufficient today. The reason we need income disclosure is to tell when legislators’ personal interests might conflict with the public interest, and the list of people looking for special favors out of the Legislature extends far beyond those who are regulated by the state; think, for instance, of the people who want tax changes that will benefit them, and the groups pushing ideologically driven initiatives.

But instead of making public officials report every dollar they receive, we could consider setting a minimum threshold — $1,000 per year? $10,000 per year? It’s negotiable — and allowing them to report the income in ranges rather than exact amounts.

Second, it reminds us that ethics reforms in our state have always started with one body’s internal operating rules.

After the House approved the Medlock rule, the Senate adopted its first ethics rule. Granted, its requirement was a shadow of the House’s: Senators had to report only what they considered to be “substantial benefits as a result of a business or professional transaction” with a lobbyist; and it eliminated the Holy Grail of the House rule, pointedly exempting lawyers who represented clients before most state agencies from reporting that information. But even that was more than we had before the House acted. And a decade and a half later, after the federal government indicted a tenth of the General Assembly on federal vote-selling charges, it was a House rule change that paved the way for serious statutory restrictions that Senate leaders initially opposed.

Finally, it reminds us that “reform” can easily be used to disguise regression.

In the national ethics frenzy that followed Watergate, the Legislature passed our state’s first real ethics law, which instituted some campaign-finance reporting but replaced the House disclosure rule with a much weaker requirement that legislators report only the sale of goods or services to people a legislator “knows to be a lobbyist” or a lobbyist’s employer.

By the time Operation Lost Trust forced the Legislature to overhaul the 1975 ethics law, no one remembered the 1970 rule. So lawmakers got away with passing reporting requirements that forced lawyer-legislators to list the income they receive representing clients before state agencies, but didn’t restore any of the other requirements of the old House rule.

And if you don’t think that sort of backsliding is likely today, then you haven’t been paying attention to our Legislature.

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

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