A get-out-of-ethics-jail-free card?

Posted by Cindi Ross Scoppe on March 18, 2014 

First Day

SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston

RAINIER EHRHARDT — AP

Rep. Kirkman Finlay’s latest legislative newsletter arrived this morning with this outline of his package of ethics bills that recently came out of subcommittee:

H. 4452 – Relating to the use of campaign funds – bans campaigns from paying family members.

H. 4553 – Process for correcting technical violations in campaign reporting.

H. 4554 – Eliminate cash expenditures by campaigns

H. 4555 – Rules for checking and savings accounts for campaigns

H. 4456 – Eliminate cash contributions to campaigns

H. 4457 – Make illegal the use of campaign funds for personal expenses or fines and fees imposed by a supervisory office.

Those sound pretty good. Until you start looking at the actual bills. Specifically, H.4553. The bill does indeed allow candidates to correct “technical violations in campaign reporting.” But that’s not all it would do. Indeed, neither the word “technical” nor any related word appears in the brief bill. Nor does it deal with the sections of the ethics law where you might expect “technical violations” to occur, such as listing the wrong date or amount of a donation.

Instead, it adds this new section to the part of the ethics law that prohibits converting campaign money to personal use: “If an appropriate supervisory office determines that a violation of this section has occurred, involving the misuse of campaign funds, it shall notify the offending respondent of its determination in writing and the respondent is then afforded a period of thirty days from the date of the notification to cure the violation by reimbursing the campaign account from personal funds in an amount necessary to make the campaign account whole. If this reimbursement occurs, the violation is considered cured and no further civil or criminal action against the respondent may occur.”

How would that work? Well, if we had a general provision like that in our criminal code, it could result in this encounter between a police officer and the person he’s handcuffing:

I’m sorry officer. I had no idea robbing banks was illegal. Here, let me just give you back the money, and we’ll call it even.

But even that explanation might not do this justice. The bill lacks language that saves any pending proceedings, so the argument could be made that it would wipe away any ongoing investigations. Like, I don’t know, the State Grand Jury investigation into allegations that House Speaker Bobby Harrell converted campaign funds to his personal use by reimbursing himself for flights across the state and up and down the east coast on his single-engine plane.

The bill was on the agenda of the full House Judiciary Committee this afternoon, but the panel sent it back to subcommittee, where it will be discussed further on Thursday.

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