Danger zone

February 17, 2013 

The most intensive push to reform South Carolina’s ethics law in two decades is being driven by a string of ethics scandals over the past three years, many at the highest levels of state government:

Lt. Gov. Ken Ard created a bizarre scheme to funnel his own money into his campaign account through third parties in an effort to convince people that he had more support than he did. After he was elected in 2010, he spent campaign donations on clothes, computer games and a family vacation. He negotiated an agreement with the State Ethics Commission and later resigned and pleaded guilty to criminal charges for misreporting and misusing campaign funds.


Gov. Mark Sanford repeatedly used state aircraft as his personal taxi and campaign funds to cover personal expenses. He was fined $140,000 and publicly reprimanded in a negotiated agreement with the State Ethics Commission. No criminal charges or impeachment charges were brought against him, and he left office at the end of his second term in 2011.


Sen. Jake Knotts accepted $25,000 in campaign donations above the legal limit of $1,000 per election, and he kept the names of some of his donors hidden from the voters. The Senate Ethics Committee reprimanded him in 2010 and ordered him to repay the illegal donations. The panel did not issue a sterner punishment because its only other option at the time was to expel him.


Sen. Kent Williams accepted nearly $13,000 in donations above the legal maximum in 2012, reporting some of them in ways the Senate Ethics Committee called “deliberate attempts to mislead the public.” The panel reprimanded him, ordered him to return the money and, using new power it was given as a result of the Knotts case, ordered him to pay a $5,390.05 fine.


Rep. Nikki Haley tried to convince her fellow lawmakers and DHEC officials to assist the hospital that was paying her salary. Separately, she was paid more than $40,000 in consulting fees by a government contractor because of her “good contacts” but did not report that arrangement on annual ethics disclosure reports. After a complaint was filed against her in 2012, the House changed its rules to eliminate some secrecy provisions, and the House Ethics Committee held public hearings and found that she broke no laws.


House Speaker Bobby Harrell is being investigated by SLED for two incidents in which critics say he profited from his position: In 2007, he received approval to sell repackaged pharmaceuticals after a member of the state Pharmacy Board suggested that he was trying to improperly influence the board. And over the past four years, he reimbursed himself $280,000 in campaign funds for vaguely described expenses, mostly to cover flights on his single-engine plane and legislative work done by an assistant who works for the insurance agency he owns.


A groundbreaking national study released in 2012 by the Center for Public Integrity found South Carolina more susceptible to political corruption than all but five other states. Among the major problems cited were insufficient disclosure requirements and inadequate ethics enforcement.


Cindi Ross Scoppe has been writing about ethics and campaign finance law since 1990, first as a reporter and now as an editorial writer. Her reporting revealed to South Carolinians the extent of the cozy relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists, which helped lay the groundwork for what was considered at the time the toughest ethics law in the nation. Since covering the yearlong debate over that law, she has written about many of its loopholes and shortcomings and the intermittent attempts to repair it — and further weaken it. Contact her at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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