COLUMBIA, SC — A majority of South Carolinians think state ethics laws for politicians should be more strict, according to a new Winthrop University poll.
Ethics become a top issue for S.C. lawmakers after Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned and pleaded guilty this spring to misusing campaign funds, and Gov. Nikki Haley was cleared this summer of charges of using her position as a state representative for personal gain.
In addition, then-Gov. Mark Sanford paid $140,000 in 2010 to settle ethics charges, reimburse the cost of a state investigation and pay for his use of state aircraft, expensive airline tickets and misspent campaign money.
The Winthrop poll question on ethics, asked exclusively for The State, found 56 percent of South Carolinians think the states laws should be more strict, while 32 percent think the laws are adequate.
Three special committees in the S.C. House and state Senate are examining ethics reform along with a commission appointed by Haley.
Ethics normally wouldnt rise to the level of the economy and education on a lot of peoples radars, Senate Ethics Committee chairman Wes Hayes, R-York, said. The fact that 56 percent of people think we ought to strengthen the ethics laws shows the General Assembly needs to make this a top priority.
But the public has not been taking advantage of ethics reform hearings to speak their minds. With one exception, the meetings have been attended sparsely, including one Monday night held by the governors commission.
People are often reluctant to come to formal meetings, Henry McMaster, co-chairman of the governors commission on ethics reform, said after the meeting, attended mostly by government association representatives. But, I tell you what, were getting a lot of telephone calls and receiving a lot of input from people who are not coming to the meetings.
Winthrop political scientist Scott Huffmon, who runs the Winthrop poll, said he was surprised one out of three South Carolinians thought the states ethics laws were adequate.
I guess some remember Operation Lost Trust (in 1990) when the Legislature enacted tough laws, he said. They figured, Didnt we put in harsh rules after that scandal? If (the laws) were inadequate, we would never heard of those things this year. So to them, its proof the system is working.
Kenny Bingham, a Lexington Republican who was elected chairman of the newly expanded House Ethics Committee, said South Carolinians want changes after recent scandals.
The pure meaning of the law is pretty strict, he said. But, at times, you can unknowingly let something slip through. From time to time, you have (to) tighten the laws. Certain issues were left in the law (from Lost Trust), unintentional things that need closing.
Legislators are promising changes that could include including full disclosure of elected officials business interests and improved access to public records. People need to feel youre ethical, Bingham said.
Winthrop surveyed 929 respondents from Nov. 25 through Dec. 2. Its poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.