A Richland County councilman and former Columbia City councilman who were charged this week with failing to file state income taxes also have spotty records of reporting their taxpayer-paid incomes to the State Ethics Commission.
Former Columbia City Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman, who pleaded guilty to failing to file state income tax returns and failing to pay state income taxes, and current Richland County Councilman Kelvin Washington, who faces three of the same charges, failed to fully report income earned from their council positions for multiple years, ethics records show.
Public officials are required by state ethics law to report annually any income they receive from governmental entities.
Lawyers for Newman and Washington had no comment Thursday about their clients’ failure to report consistently their incomes on required state ethics disclosures. Those electronically filed statements include a certification that the statement is truthful.
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John Crangle, an ethics expert who helped draw up the state ethics law, said the reason public officials have to report their income from public bodies is to have that information available to the public.
“The whole idea of disclosure is to let the public know what they are paying for,” said Crangle, president of S.C. Common Cause, an advocacy group that monitors state and local government practices.
However, Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, said the ethics law needs strengthening.
“South Carolina’s income disclosure laws for politicians are deliberately weak,” said Landess, whose small-government, low-tax think tank advocates for ethics reform. “Even when they are caught, no one enforces the law and, thus, there are no consequences.
“Until we have strong income disclosure laws – and they are enforced – we’ll have politicians who run for office for no other reason than to profit from their power.”
Each year, elected officials are required to file statements of economic interest with the Ethics Commission by March 30, covering their incomes and holdings from the previous calendar year. For instance, a report filed in 2015 is a reflection of income and other interests in 2014.
But there are holes in the disclosure law.
For instance, Newman has been paid $100,000 in public money from Richland County’s penny sales tax for legal work he did for the penny tax program, according to program officials. On Monday, Newman stepped down from his legal role with the penny program, giving up a contract worth an estimated $398,000 over five years.
However, under state law, that $100,000 in public money would not have to be reported to the Ethics Commission because it flowed through the private corporation that manages the penny program to Newman’s law firm, of which he is the sole proprietor.
“I don’t call that money laundering,” Crangle said. “But it is hiding the source of the money to make it hard to know that Newman is getting public money. I call that ‘money camouflage.’ ”
Officials with Richland County’s penny tax program have told The State newspaper that Newman did land title searches for the private corporation that manages the penny program.
Newman was on Columbia City Council from 2010 to 2015 and filed a statement of economic interests each year of his tenure. He reported his $13,500 council salary in 2013 and 2014, but did not do so the other years, according to commission records.
Washington, who has been on Richland County Council since 2009, has filed reports each year. But he reported his County Council salary only in 2014 and 2015. He reported being paid $18,538.23 by the county in 2014 and $16,477.09 in 2015.
Throughout his council tenure, Washington also has reported income from other entities, including the state Department of Transportation, S.C. State University, International Paper and a family-owned business, Integrated Grassroots Solutions LLC.
Washington also owes $75,100 in late filing penalties and enforcement fines levied by the Ethics Commission since 2012, according to a list of debtors posted on the commission’s website.
You can search any public official’s statements of economic interest in the Ethics Commission’s public reporting section online here, and see the commission’s list of debtors here.
Newman and Washington are not alone among local city and county council members who inconsistently have reported their council salaries. Some council members have reported their council salaries some years and not others. Others have not reported those salaries at all.
Whether council members have to report their council salaries is “kind of clear as mud,” said Cameron Runyan, who was on Columbia City Council from 2012-2015.
Runyan reported his council income all those years. But, he added, it is unclear that elected officials must report income they receive from offices that voters chose them to fill.
Reach Ellis at (803) 7718307; Monk at (803) 771-8344.