Scoppe: What Robert Ford means to ethics reform

Associate EditorJune 5, 2013 

— FORMER SEN. Robert Ford is being cast by some as a poster child for the need to upgrade our ethics law and by others as proof positive of the sufficiency of our current law. He is, in fact, neither.

Mr. Ford, who resigned on Friday as the Senate Ethics Committee laid out a damning case of widespread violations of the campaign-finance law, billed himself as a civil rights leader. But he was most passionate when he was shilling for gambling interests and the defund-the-public-school movement — which have in common deep-pocketed donors who aggressively target opponents and bend the campaign-finance law to pump huge amounts of money into the coffers of their friends.

He and Jake Knotts were the yin and yang of nails-on-chalkboard senators. And just as no one who knew Mr. Knotts was surprised three years ago when he received the first public reprimand the Senate Ethics Committee ever issued for violating the ethics law, no one who knew Mr. Ford could have been surprised that he, like Mr. Knotts, failed to report numerous campaign donations and expenditures.

Both men blamed “sloppy” bookkeeping. Which is a kind way of saying that, at the very least, neither bothered to care about the niceties of obeying the law that required them to report the money that people gave to their political campaigns, and how they spent it. Mr. Knotts doesn’t appear to have acted as abusively as Mr. Ford, but that could simply reflect the fact that he admitted he had violated the law; Mr. Ford did not.

And that is where the Ford case is relevant to the ethics reform debate underway at the State House.

Mr. Ford got caught by what the Senate committee calls a routine audit of his campaign-disclosure reports. These audits go much deeper than what the State Ethics Commission and the House Ethics Committee call auditing — simply checking to make sure all the blanks are filled in, and maybe checking the math — and only the Senate panel, with a much smaller number of reports to review, has the capacity to do them.

That needs to change. Whoever enforces the ethics law needs to have a knowledgeable staff of investigators to look closely at the reports. And they need a mandate to conduct detailed audits — comparing the reports to bank records — of not just of suspicious reports but a hefty random sample.

Yet neither the House’s nor the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ethics reform bill addresses that.

What Mr. Ford’s case does not demonstrate is the need for lawmakers to report their sources of income. The case seems to demonstrate, as many of us long had suspected, that Mr. Ford was living off of his Senate seat. There’s no reason to think he would have reported that if required to do so, any more than he reported how he was spending his campaign cash.

The poster child for the need to report sources of income is Gov. Nikki Haley, who as a legislator was paid $1,000 a month by engineering company Wilbur Smith Associates to “keep your eyes and ears open.” No one knew that because the law didn’t require her to report it — which is a huge shortcoming in the law.

Nor does Mr. Ford’s case demonstrate the need for an independent entity to enforce our campaign-finance and ethics law. Senate leaders argue that his case, coming on the heels of Mr. Knotts’ and one other, demonstrates that the Senate Ethics Committee is not protecting its own. Of course, we can’t know that, because you can’t prove a negative.

But even if you think the Senate is doing a bang-up job, there is nothing to suggest that the House is doing likewise. The most serious action the House panel has taken was to publicly reprimand a representative for trying to set up an escort service from his House office — which it didn’t do until after he was identified as a target of the FBI’s Operation Lost Trust vote-selling sting. That was 23 years ago.

If you want a poster child for the need for independent enforcement, look to House Speaker Bobby Harrell, who is accused of using his campaign fund illegally and using his position to profit his business. In a world where votes are the primary currency, it would be inconceivable to expect a fair judgment from the House Ethics Committee — whose members rely on the good graces of the speaker to decide their committee assignments and advance their legislative agendas. Attorney General Alan Wilson is looking into the matter — as he can with any allegations of criminal wrongdoing.

The other thing the Ford case doesn’t demonstrate is the need to close the loophole that allows donors to hide their contributions during a 20-day blackout period before the election. Mr. Ford didn’t use that loophole to hide embarrassing donations or expenditures; he didn’t report them at all. It doesn’t demonstrate the need to more clearly define what lawmakers can and can’t spend campaign funds on; again, Mr. Ford apparently ignored even the clear rules we have. Ditto the other loopholes and shortcomings in our campaign-finance law. But all that needs addressing.

Although most people will obey the law simply because it’s the law — and they’re the main people we need to keep in mind when we write the law — the fact is that there are some people who will not. They’ll obey the law only if they are convinced that they’re likely to get caught, and to get punished severely if they are caught — and those are the people we need to have in mind when we write the penalties.

Mr. Ford is now being investigated by SLED on hundreds of counts of violating eight provisions of the law. Each violation is a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to a year in prison and a fine of up to 500 percent of the value of illegal donations and expenditures.

Under the initial super-secret plan by House leaders to overhaul the ethics law, Mr. Ford would not be facing criminal penalties; that plan decriminalized the behavior he’s accused of engaging in. House leaders reversed course and reinstated the criminal penalties. But their do-over plan raised the standard of proof, which means that if their legislation were the law, it would be much more difficult to convict Mr. Ford than it will be under the current law.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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