Four Republican state legislators have been accused of public corruption since 2014. None was called out by the legislative committees that were charged with overseeing the behavior of lawmakers.
Now, a new ethics law is in effect, aiming to restore the public’s faith that corrupt politicians will be held accountable.
But will it thwart the corruption at the center of an ongoing State House investigation?
Maybe not, some ethics watchdogs say.
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The good news, they say, is lawmakers no longer will investigate complaints against fellow legislators who are accused of violating the state’s ethics laws. Instead, the State Ethics Commission will investigate legislators, a role it already plays with every other public official in the state.
That change, says Lynn Teague of the League of Women Voters, should give the public faith that allegations of wrongdoing will be referred for criminal investigation, where appropriate.
“It will be easier to identify the cases because we're going to have independent ethics investigators looking at the evidence,” Teague said. “And, frankly, we can have more confidence in whether the ethics law has been broken.”
But legislators on House and Senate ethics committees still can reject the Ethics Commission’s findings that there is probable cause a crime has been committed, and dismiss complaints against the lawmaker, issuing no punishment.
That is one of the weaknesses in the new law, said John Crangle, a longtime State House watchdog now with the S.C. Progressive Network.
“They did give the Ethics Commission investigative authority. But there's no disciplinary authority,” Crangle said of lawmakers who adopted the new ethics law last year. “It's better than nothing, but only a little bit better than nothing.”
The new law is flawed in other ways, too, Crangle and others add.
A river of corporate and PAC money still flows into the political system, tempting lawmakers.
And another change in the new law — designed to shed light on conflicts of interest — does not go far enough, critics say.
That new law requires officials to report the sources of their private income — who employs them — but not the amount they are paid. It also does not require legislators to report who pays their employer.
That’s important because some dozens of lawmakers make their livelihoods offering nebulous services — including legal counsel or consulting. But reporting only the name of a legislator’s consulting firm, for example, fails to capture the names of the clients who pay that firm, some of whom may have legislative agendas.
That secrecy leaves lawmakers plenty of opportunity to conceal wrongdoing, said state Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens, a former judge.
“Those of us who truly believe in ethics reform have been trying to have monetary disclosure and source disclosure but have run into resistance,” Clary said. “But, until we do that, there's always going to be a cloud out there.”
A string of scandals
Last year’s update to the state’s ethics laws came after one of the state’s most powerful Republican legislators pleaded guilty to corruption charges and resigned. Subsequently, three more GOP lawmakers were indicted and suspended from office as part of an ongoing public corruption probe.
First to fall was House Speaker Bobby Harrell, who pleaded guilty after prosecutors accused him of converting more than $90,000 in campaign money to his personal use.
Three more Republican lawmakers have pending cases.
In December, state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, was accused of pocketing at least $1.3 million in campaign money either directly or through his business. Merrill also is charged with illegally lobbying for groups with business before the Legislature that had paid him or his firm.
Last month, prosecutors alleged state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, paid his political consultant, Richard Quinn & Associates, more than $240,000 from his campaign account and then got about $133,000 back that he used for personal expenses.
On Tuesday, state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington – the son of Richard Quinn – was accused of steering more than $270,000 in House GOP Caucus work to firms he has a stake in. Quinn also was charged with accepting, through those businesses, about $4.6 million from groups with business before the Legislature and using his office to influence governmental decisions involving those groups.
More ethics reforms unlikely
Despite the string of scandals, lawmakers are unlikely to revisit the state’s ethics laws.
Debate over the two bills passed last year was too time-consuming, stretching out over four years. Also, the public has little interest in the ethics reform, some legislators say.
Last year’s ethics updates also give lawmakers an excuse not to come back to the subject for years, Crangle said.
Those updates were only “placebo reforms,” Crangle says, not addressing the core problems. But their passage allows lawmakers to say, “We've dealt with that.”
Some legislators say the state’s revised ethics law is sufficient, at least until after the current cases against lawmakers are resolved.
“You can't legislate ethics. Either you have ethics or you don't have ethics,” said state Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, House Judiciary Committee chairman and a House Ethics Committee member.
“If there are to be any (more) changes in the ethics law, it needs to be after all this settles out and the court determines what's a crime and what's not a crime.”
‘You have to bear some risk’
However, good government advocates Teague and Crangle say stronger disclosure rules would deter lawmakers from hiding conflicts of interest and help watchdogs detect wrongdoing.
Requiring random or “real-time” auditing of campaign bank accounts also would discourage misbehavior, both say.
While no law compels them to conduct reviews, House and Senate ethics watchdogs say they already are auditing filings.
State Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley, says the Senate Ethics Committee’s legal staff is reading every financial and campaign disclosure filed for Senate members and candidates.
Filers are submitting bank records for their campaign bank accounts, too, giving auditors a chance to spot discrepancies between transactions recorded by the bank and those reported to the state, he said.
In the 46-member Senate that added scrutiny is doable, Campbell said. However, the House, which conducts only random audits, has 124 seats.
Having the State Ethics Commission conduct random audits of all public officials — as some legislators have suggested — would be too expensive, Campbell said.
The commission has 12 full-time staff members – including four investigators – and processes between 24,000 and 25,000 filings a year, said executive director Steve Hamm.
To audit each of those filings would require each of the commission’s 12 employees – including its director, staff attorney, receptionist and others – to review eight filings a day, Mondays through Fridays, for the entire year, without taking a holiday off or vacation.
“Do you have a CPA firm come in and audit every elected official in South Carolina? In life, you have to bear some risk,” Campbell said.
‘Best to stay away’
Stopping the flow of corporate and political action committee money into campaign accounts could thwart some corruption, Crangle says.
Some lawmakers raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for elections in which they are unopposed. Harrell, for example, raised more than $200,000 for his 2010 campaign, where he was unopposed.
State Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, says lawmakers can remove the temptation of campaign money without passing a new law.
“If I don't have opposition, I don't raise any money,” said Gregory, who reported a single contribution — of $1.17 — between January and March, and has about $8,600 in his campaign account.
"Some of these guys feel like they need to raise money all the time to ward off opposition,” Gregory said. “It gives more potential to run into trouble when you have huge sums of money sitting in an account.
“Best to just stay away from it if you don't have opposition.”
SC’s new ethics law
South Carolina adopted two new ethics laws last year, the first update to the state’s laws governing the behavior of public officials and candidates in nearly three decades. A look at what the law now does and does not do:
It does: Stop the House and Senate ethics committees from investigating serious allegations against House or Senate members, shifting those investigations to the State Ethics Commission
But it does not: Give the Ethics Commission’s findings the force of the law. The commission will investigate complaints against lawmakers, and, if six of eight commissioners agree, the panel will report a finding of probable cause to the appropriate legislative ethics committee. However, that finding is only a recommendation. The legislative ethics committees still have final say on whether a lawmaker committed a civil violation of the law and deserves punishment.
It does: Increase the likelihood that suspected criminal violations of the state’s public corruption laws will be referred to the state attorney general for investigation. If the Ethics Commission suspects a criminal violation, it will refer the issue directly to the attorney general, skipping the House and Senate ethics committees altogether.
It does: Remake the state Ethics Commission so the governor, the House and the Senate all appoint members to the body, responsible for investigating complaints. Previously, the governor appointed all Ethics Commission members, raising questions about whether the panel could be impartial.
But it does not: Do away with the House and Senate ethics committees, which still can exert political power over the Ethics Commission through legislative appointees to the panel.
Legislative ethics committees also can exert political pressure through issuing advisory opinions that interpret the state’s ethics law, Teague said. And lawmakers have used those advisory opinions in their defense.
For example, indicted state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, is pointing to advisory opinions written by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, a client of the political consulting firm operated by Quinn’s father, and the House Ethics Committee to defend himself against the charge that he illegally directed House GOP Caucus business to himself or his firms. Those opinions, Quinn told The State recently, say his actions were legal.