The optimism that typically comes with the start of the S.C. legislative session each January has been overshadowed this year by an ongoing investigation into allegations of State House corruption.
When the General Assembly reconvenes Tuesday, the top issues will include fixing the state’s crumbling roads; funding poor, rural schools; and addressing an underfunded pension system.
But the corruption investigation will cast a pall over Tuesday’s proceedings, raising a host of other issues, including:
▪ Will special prosecutor David Pascoe’s probe yield more indictments, following the charges filed last month against state Rep. Jim Merrill?
▪ Do S.C. lawmakers, who passed two ethics reforms last year, need to toughen to state’s ethics laws yet again this year?
▪ Most importantly, can the public trust legislators to serve them rather than monied special interests, which, in Merrill’s case, Pascoe alleges paid the Republican legislator hundreds of thousands of dollars to push their agenda?
“Public trust in the State House was already at a low level and has been for a really long time,” said good government watchdog John Crangle, head of S.C. Common Cause.
“It suffered another hit when Merrill was indicted, and it may get worse with other indictments as well.”
‘We did get some important things’
Two indictments during the past month mean the GOP-controlled General Assembly will start its session without a pair of Republican legislators.
State Rep. Chris Corley, R-Aiken, was suspended after he was indicted on criminal domestic abuse charges after, police say, he punched his wife of 12 years in the face and pointed a 9 mm pistol at her in the presence of two of their children. Merrill, R-Berkeley, was suspended after he was indicted on charges of using his public office to pocket at least $1.3 million from outside interest groups.
S.C. ethics watchdogs say the behavior alleged in Merrill’s indictment is not all that unique at the State House. More indictments for similar behavior could be on the way from Pascoe’s investigation, they add.
Concerns about the behavior of state officials are not new, dating, most recently, to the second term of then-Gov. Mark Sanford. The Charleston Republican paid a then-record ethics fine for misusing state assets.
However, instances of state officials behaving badly have occurred repeatedly since Sanford’s brush with the Appalachian Trial. Facing criminal charges, a lieutenant governor, speaker of the House and state senator have resigned since 2012.
After years of debate about whether tougher ethics laws were needed, legislators passed two ethics reform bills last year.
The new laws are positive steps, ethics watchdogs say. But, they add, more should be done this year to strengthen the state’s ethics laws.
One of the bills passed last year— which Crangle calls “timid” and “inadequate” — requires S.C. legislators to disclose their private, taxable sources of income and the income of their family members. The idea is the public should know who is paying their part-time legislators so they can judge whether their pay from other sources presents any potential conflicts.
But the new law does not require legislators to say how much money they get from those sources.
The other new reform gives a revamped, eight-member Ethics Commission the power to investigate allegations against legislators. Lawmakers previously had investigated themselves in what critics said was a buddy-buddy system that protected powerful lawmakers from scrutiny.
The two reforms are positive steps, one ethics watchdog says.
“People underestimate to some extent how useful what we got is,” said Lynn Teague, vice president of the League of Women Voters’ S.C. chapter. “We did get some important things.”
But, she added, “There’s still more that we would like to get done.”
On the horizon
Possible reforms include:
▪ Requiring lawmakers to report how much income they receive from the outside sources that they now must disclose, starting in March.
▪ Eradicating “dark money,” or donations given to organizations that do not have to reveal their donors or how much money they receive. Those groups then use the money to push a political agenda or defeat candidates. Legislators could require those organizations to disclose where that money comes from, allowing the public to learn something about their agenda.
▪ Putting a deadline in place for the House and Senate Ethics Committees to refer allegations against legislators to the newly empowered state Ethics Commission. Those committees now can indefinitely bury ethics complaints, which are bound in secrecy, Crangle said.
▪ Strengthening the state’s whiste-blower law to protect public employees who report ethics abuses from retaliation.
At a workshop last week, state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, said the state needs to tackle dark-money-fueled groups that pepper S.C. residents with mailers on issues without disclosing their identities or motives.
“Who you are is determined by who your funders are and what their agenda is,” she said.
However, state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, said legislators, having passed two new ethics laws last year, should wait before proposing more wide-ranging changes.
“We will find some things that need to be changed as it plays out over the next year or two, and then we will probably see some change,” Campsen said. “But, right now, we’ve created it. Let’s see how it works in the real world.”
However, Campsen said he is not opposed to filing reforms that target specific issues.
Teague agrees with that approach, saying large, all-encompassing omnibus ethics reform bills tend to attract more opponents than piecemeal measures.
“We have found opposition to even the simplest, least offensive-looking ethics bills,” she said.
Crangle hopes Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster – set to become governor if Republican Gov. Nikki Haley is confirmed as U.N. ambassador – will push hard on ethics reform in order to position himself for re-election in 2018.
“Knowing legislators after having dealt with them for 30 years now, they do as little as they have to,” Crangle said. “Only if they feel they need to do something will they actually take appropriate action.”
Recent S.C. ethics scandals
▪ Last month, state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, was indicted and accused of using his public office to pocket at least $1.3 million from outside interest groups.
▪ In 2014, former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, resigned and pleaded guilty to spending campaign money on personal expenses. Harrell avoided jail time in a plea deal that required him to tell federal and state authorities about illegal activities of others, including lawmakers.
▪ In 2013, state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, resigned during a state Senate Ethics Committee hearing into allegations that he misused campaign donations. In 2015, Ford entered a guilty plea to charges of misconduct in office and ethics violations, avoiding jail time.
▪ In 2012, former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, R-Florence, resigned after his indictment on 106 ethics violations. Ard pleaded guilty to seven charges and received five years’ probation.