Scoppe: How not to improve SC ethics law

Associate EditorNovember 20, 2013 

Cindi Scoppe

— THE ETHICS reform proposal that Gov. Nikki Haley started campaigning for last week fails to eliminate several flaws in our current law, and some of its solutions leave much to be desired.

But it does address the two most glaring problems with the law — requiring elected officials to report the sources of their income and empowering an independent entity to investigate legislators’ compliance with the law — and as such it would go a long way toward getting our state out of the nation’s ethics cellar. Which makes Sen. Vincent Sheheen’s response to the governor’s campaign so troubling.

“Today, Nikki Haley held a press conference to talk about ethics reform in South Carolina,” a news release from his gubernatorial campaign began. “From covering up the Social Security number hacking scandal to flying with campaign staffers in a state owned plane, Nikki is the last person who should be talking about ethics reform.”

Wow.

I suppose that sort of non sequitur makes some sense from a campaign perspective, as it reminds people of our governor’s ethical imperfections. But from a governing perspective — and one of the things that I’ve always admired about Vincent Sheheen is that he cares about governing, much more than the governor has tended to — it is completely wrong.

It suggests that reform should be pursued only by the pure of heart. In fact, our government, as a creation of human beings, must rely on imperfect vessels.

It certainly is fair to call Ms. Haley a hypocrite, or to point out that the things she seeks to outlaw are things she herself has done. But I’d rather have a hypocrite who’s trying to get our laws right than a saint who isn’t.

The email went on: “Our state deserves real ethics reform. And we deserve a governor who doesn’t constantly blur the lines to serve political agendas.”

Those are both very good points. But they address two completely different issues.

The first is about what sort of law the Legislature passes — or doesn’t pass — in the coming session. The second is about whom we elect as governor a year from now.

Personally, I’d like to have both. At this point, I think Mr. Sheheen would make a better choice on the “governor who doesn’t constantly blur the lines” thing. And the ethics plan that Ms. Haley is pushing might be our best shot at real ethics reform. In fact, while Mr. Sheheen wants to focus more on correcting other shortcomings in our ethics law, the main provisions that Ms. Haley is pushing are changes he supports.

The news release urged people who agreed with the ethics reform/no-blurred-lines argument to “add your name to our petition.”

I clicked the link to find out what sort of demands voters were being asked to make of the governor for trying to outlaw some of the actions that she has practiced and to amend provisions of law that have accrued to her benefit. When I did, I found a “petition” that repeated the charges of the news release, concluded that “our state deserves real ethics reform” and asked people to agree by providing their contact information to the Sheheen campaign.

Which is to say that this was a cheap campaign gimmick.

Certainly, Mr. Sheheen isn’t the only one engaged in cheap campaign gimmicks. Ms. Haley does it all the time. But that doesn’t make it right. Must I play mother and ask, “If your friends were going to jump off a cliff, would you want to do that too?”

And really, that’s the problem here: this pervasive idea that all’s fair in political campaigns.

It’s not. Especially not when the candidates are elected officials, and the line between elected official and candidate is obliterated.

It simply is not acceptable to block good legislation that we need just because you’re afraid your political opponent might be able to take some credit for it. It is not acceptable for the Republicans in Washington to do that. It is not acceptable for the Democrats in Columbia to do it.

Certainly, there are some Democrats at the State House who oppose real ethics reform because … well, because they oppose real ethics reform. There are Republicans who oppose it for the same reason — some openly, as the Senate’s fringe Republicans did this spring in helping block passage, some not so openly, as I think is the case with some in the lower chamber who voted for the half-reform measure the House passed, secretly hoping the Senate would kill it.

But contrary to the narrative that the Haley campaign is pushing, based on my own tweets during a Senate debate in May, Mr. Sheheen is not among those Democrats who oppose ethics reform. (Mr. Sheheen had voted against keeping the Senate in session over the weekend, which might have provided time to get an ethics bill passed this year. He told me later that he was afraid the long weekend would have resulted in senators sabotaging his extremely important bill to abolish the Budget and Control Board, which I think was a bad judgment call but certainly not the same as opposing ethics reform.)

No, Mr. Sheheen’s sin on ethics is that he has bought in to the politically convenient idea that if legislation doesn’t address the ethical problems he considers most worrisome, or isn’t as tough as he would like, then it’s not worth passing.

There are times when that approach to legislating is correct. But with rare exceptions, it breaks the cardinal rule of politics, and pretty much any human endeavor: Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Beyond that, it’s hard to make that case against ethics legislation that is focused on issues that the leading good-government groups (Common Cause and the League of Women Voters) consider most important, and it’s hard for a Democrat to make the case that Republicans have made inadequate a bill that is supported by other left-of-center groups such as the AARP and the Coastal Conservation League.

Although Gov. Haley has made it her priority, this is not her legislation. It belongs to those good-government groups on the left and citizens groups on the left and right, and to former Democratic Attorney General Travis Medlock and former Republican Attorney General Henry McMaster and the other members of the ethics review commission that the governor appointed but that included members who would not be counted among her supporters. It belongs to most of the state’s newspaper editorial boards, which have been advocating these sorts of reforms for years.

Yes, we deserve a lot better than the Senate Judiciary Committee’s reform package. But the way to get better is to join with other reformers to strengthen the bill — not to attack the efforts of the person who’s best able to focus public attention on the need for reform.

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

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