Attorney Robert Rikard hopes a $5.5 million jury verdict that he won six years ago will help him win a seat in the state Senate.
In that case, Rikard sued one of the state’s largest law firms, alleging it gave bad advice. Lawyers suing lawyers is unusual in South Carolina, a small state with an even smaller bar. But, on the campaign trail, Rikard cites the lawsuit as proof he won’t hesitate to hold his peers in the Senate accountable if he is elected.
“I wouldn’t be afraid to raise issues with my fellow colleagues or fellow Democrats,” he said. “Right is right and wrong is wrong.”
Rikard is one of dozens of S.C. candidates – Democrats and Republicans, challengers and incumbents – talking about right and wrong this fall.
In the last year:
• A report by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity ranked South Carolina as one of the states most susceptible to corruption, citing the state’s weak ethics laws.
• Gov. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, became the first sitting governor to be formerly investigated – and, later, cleared – by the House Ethics Committee.
• House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, was criticized for not disclosing receipts showing how he used $326,000 in campaign funds.
“The atmosphere now is somewhat like the atmosphere after ‘Operation Lost Trust,’ ” said state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, referring to the 1980s-’90s FBI investigation that resulted in 17 lawmakers being indicted. “The public is demanding now that we make some changes.”
Those demands have reached the politicians. Democratic consultant Tyler Jones is telling all of his candidates to prepare ethics-reform proposals.
“In this environment, it’s smart politics,” said Walter Whetsell, a Republican consultant.
‘People don’t trust us’
Popular reforms popping up in State House campaigns include requiring politicians to disclose exactly how they make their money, requiring retired lawmakers to wait at least four years before they lobby the Legislature and closing the loophole in state law that allows political action committees to spend an unlimited amount of money anonymously.
Ethics reform also has become an issue in two of the state’s most competitive races: in Richland County’s House District 78, where Democrat Beth Bernstein is challenging Republican incumbent Joan Brady, and in Sumter County’s Senate District 35, where Republican Tony Barwick and Democrat Thomas McElveen are vying for an open seat.
In Richland County, Bernstein is telling voters that she wants to eliminate the House Ethics Committee, a committee that Brady, her opponent, is a member of.
That committee is responsible for investigating ethics complaints against House members. But Bernstein, who rolled out a seven-point ethics reform plan Monday, said having House lawmakers investigate other House lawmakers is like “asking the fox to guard the hen house.” Bernstein proposes giving the investigations to the state Ethics Commission.
“I’ve knocked on close to 4,000 doors. People are frustrated and they are leery of our government,” Bernstein said. “People don’t trust who is representing us.”
Brady, unanimously appointed to the Ethics Committee by her House colleagues, said she is “open to all discussion.” But she worries savvy politicians could manipulate the independent state Ethics Commission for political purposes.
“We see it all too often in House Ethics (committee), where disgruntled candidates, desperate candidates, candidates who have lost will bring what is considered a frivolous complaint against our members,” she said. “I would just want to be assured that state ethics will have procedures in place to be able to effectively screen complaints.”
In Sumter, Republican state Senate candidate Barwick wants to ban lawyer-legislators from voting on state judges, who are elected by the Legislature.
Barwick’s Democratic opponent, McElveen, just happens to be an attorney.
“If I’m the guy who lobbied for you to be a judge, and I’m a lawyer and I’m practicing in front of you ... do you (think I) have an unfair advantage?” Barwick asked. “Anyone with any common sense would realize that is (not) how it should be.”
McElveen, an attorney with the Bryan Law Firm in Sumter, said he has argued many cases against lawyer-legislators and never once questioned the integrity of the judge. “I’ve got enough faith in the system where I believe in public service and I believe in our judges,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s a problem.”
‘Everything is on the table’
Meanwhile, some incumbents are using their clout to boost their own ethics credentials.
State Sen. John Courson, the Richland Republican recently elected head of the state Senate and Rikard’s opponent in November’s District 20 race, has appointed a bipartisan Senate committee to hold public hearings across the state and propose ethics-reform legislation.
“Everything is on the table,” Courson said. “We felt like we needed to do something.”