Scoppe: What Rainey v. Haley tells us about ethics reform

Associate EditorJune 18, 2013 

Scoppe

— GOV. NIKKI Haley’s supporters see the Supreme Court’s unanimous rejection of the lawsuit by onetime GOP gubernatorial kingmaker John Rainey as vindication of her excellency’s ethics, which of course it wasn’t, since the court was not considering the merits of the case.

But while her critics correctly contend that it was a technicality that finally freed the governor of legal challenges, I have no doubt that she ultimately would have won on the merits had the technicality not gotten in the way.

And that victory would have nothing to do with the governor’s ethics and everything to do with our state’s subpar ethics law.

The court refused to reverse a lower court’s decision throwing out the case because, in the minds of three justices, it has no business ever hearing ethics cases involving legislators. And the ruling included a bizarre and perhaps troubling message that the justices went out of their way to send to legislators about the constitutional implications of their efforts to overhaul that law.

But I’m still trying to figure out precisely what the justices meant by gratuitously invoking the constitution — and doing so in a way that appeared to be internally inconsistent — so for today, let’s just talk about the obvious policy implications.

As with so many matters, the way we look at this case has been tainted by politics. Haley fans insist that she never did anything wrong, implicitly calling into question even the undisputed facts of what it was that she did while she was serving in the House. Critics insist that only partisan hanky-panky on the House Ethics Committee saved her from being thrown under the jail, ignoring the fact that most House Republicans don’t particularly care for her.

And as with so many politically tainted viewpoints, both of these convictions are completely wrong.

Remove the personalities, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a non-legislator who thinks it’s ethical for a legislator to encourage a state agency to ignore state law in order to benefit her employer … and hit up lobbyists for donations to her employer when they have make-or-break business before a subcommittee she chairs … and accept $1,000 a month from a state contractor to “keep your eyes and ears open.”

To the contrary, those actions pretty much define unethical legislative behavior, logrolling your position for personal gain. And, at least the way Rep. Haley carried them out, they’re all perfectly legal.

Which is pretty damning indictment of our ethics law. And a powerful argument for reform for a law that makes it not only tempting but ridiculously easy for our lawmakers to put their personal financial interests ahead of the public’s interests.

Of course there’s a lot more wrong with our law than the parts that Rep. Haley exploited — mostly involving people who hide from the public their efforts to influence our votes — and those problems absolutely need fixing. But fixing the problems highlighted by the governor’s actions involves two primary reforms: outing legislators by requiring them to disclose all their sources of income, and allowing someone besides legislators to play a role in enforcing the law as it applies to legislators.

Since “amount of income” got dropped from the proposal, most legislators seem to have reconciled themselves to the idea of telling us who’s signing their paychecks — or at least they’re afraid to be seen as objecting to the idea. But legislators never seriously considered independent enforcement of the law, and in the waning days of this year’s regular legislative session, even the very sensible fall-back position — independent investigations, with full legislative enforcement retained — ran into trouble.

The idea of letting anyone other than senators judge or investigate senators seems to be at the heart of Senate Democrats’ objection to the ethics overhaul that most mainstream Republicans, Gov. Haley and her once and future Democratic opponent, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, tried to push through the upper chamber earlier this month. And as the clock ticked down on the session, the Democrats picked up two important Republican allies, current and former Senate Ethics Chairmen Luke Rankin and Hugh Leatherman, who insisted that their committee’s investigation of now-former Sen. Robert Ford demonstrated that no such change was needed.

In fact, the only thing demonstrated by Mr. Ford’s resignation as the Senate prepared to expel him was that the committee was handling this particularly egregious case aggressively. It said nothing about other cases of senatorial wrongdoing about which we know nothing. It said nothing about cases of House members’ wrongdoing, of which we know something or nothing.

Gov. Haley, to her credit, has made a signature issue of requiring the full income disclosure that she did not voluntarily provide and of eliminating the legislative self-policing that resulted in ethics charges against her being dismissed. She says her own experiences awakened her to the problems, and the need for these reforms — which is a way of saying she learned from her mistakes without acknowledging she made mistakes. Her critics say she is merely trying to whitewash her own misdeeds.

I have no idea which is the case. And I don’t care. And neither should anyone else who wants to see our law improved, to prevent other legislators from doing the sorts of things that she and so many others have done and continue to do, at the public’s expense.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com.

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