A S.C. House committee will take up proposals Monday to tighten state laws governing the use on campaign money and establish an independent body to investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers.
The proposals are part of the Legislature’s scandal-induced, once-every-25-year effort to fix the state’s ethics laws during the General Assembly session that starts in January.
The same House committee already has passed proposals to require public officials to list their sources of private income and require secretive political action committees to disclose their donors and expenditures.
Ethics advocates say the proposals are a start in addressing loopholes in current state law that allow for corruption.
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But, they add, more needs to be done.
There is an appetite for change – demonstrated by the House committee, which was created by new House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, soon after former Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, was charged with misusing campaign money.
Harrell subsequently pleaded guilty, and House committee members have been working to meet Lucas’ goal of prefiling about 15 easy-to-understand ethics reform bills Thursday.
The state Senate also has prefiled its own set of ethics proposals. But, in what is expected to be an issue that pits the Senate against the House, some senators oppose having an outside, independent body investigate allegations against lawmakers. They say the state Constitution requires legislators to police other lawmakers.
Passing ethics reform as soon as possible is a priority among legislators, stung by the Harrell allegations that portray lawmakers as grifters. Lucas says there is a strong likelihood of the special House ethics committee Monday passing proposed reforms governing use of campaign money and allowing independent investigations of lawmakers.
“It’s clear that we haven’t looked at our ethics laws as often as we need to,” Lucas said. “But given where we are now in our state’s history, I think it’s critical that we not only be thorough, but that we also get it right, and we do it immediately.”
‘Every breath ... is office-related’
Ethics advocates, including Common Cause of S.C. head John Crangle, say establishing an independent body to investigate allegations against lawmakers is essential despite the opposition of senators.
“The failure of the House Ethics Committee to deal with Bobby Harrell … shows that the in-house legislative ethics committees don’t work very well,” Crangle said.
The House’s proposal would revamp the State Ethics Commission. Its members, now all appointed by the governor, would be appointed by the governor, S.C. Supreme Court and General Assembly. The Ethics Commission would investigate all ethics complaints against public officials, including legislators. After investigating, it would refer criminal allegations against legislators to prosecutors and civil allegations to the House and Senate ethics committees if warranted.
Crangle applauds the House’s independent investigation proposal, including having others besides the governor appoint members to the Ethics Commission. But he questions whether the Supreme Court appointments would be constitutional and favors having one member of the Ethics Commission elected by voters.
The House proposals also would clarify how public officials can spend campaign money.
The proposal says campaign money cannot be used to pay fines, fees or expenses stemming from criminal charges. Harrell, for instance, used campaign money to pay the attorneys who defended him against allegations of misusing campaign contributions.
The proposal also outlines examples of expenses that would be permissible for a campaign fund to pay, including campaign or expenses related to holding office. For example, a candidate could use political contributions to pay for lodging, food and mileage for the candidate or a candidate’s immediate family and staff. Candidates also could use campaign money to buy office equipment, including computers and cellphones.
Some watchdogs say that proposal doesn’t go far enough.
Crangle, for instance, says no expenses that a politician says are related to the cost of holding office should be eligible for reimbursement from a campaign account.
“Some of those guys think that every breath they take is office-related,” Crangle said, citing Harrell as an example.
However, the League of Women Voters, which also has pushed for ethics reform, is willing to go along with more closely defining what “expenses of office” can be repaid from campaign finance funds, said league vice president Lynn Teague.
“Campaign fund misuse seems especially common because the information is disclosed,” said Teague. “But that doesn’t make it the most important ethical violation. Other things about which we have no information – private income sources, especially – could be a source of even more significant problems,” including conflicts of interest.
House committee members hope they already have addressed that concern, passing a proposal last week to require legislators to disclose the sources – but not amounts – of their private income in their statement of economic interest.
“Citizens of our state need to be secure in the knowledge that their representatives aren’t voting on an issue in which they may have potential conflicts of interest,” Lucas said. “By making this type of disclosure, it will certainly be easier to reveal any type of conflicts that a member may have.”
‘Launching a boat with a big hole’
While generally credited as an improvement, the ethics reform proposals do not address some areas of S.C. law that critics say need fixing.
For example, the proposals:
• Do not address individuals who control multiple businesses and use each business to contribute to a candidate, allowing them to skirt the state’s $1,000 limit on campaign contributions to legislators. New York real estate multimillionaire Howard Rich, for instance, has given tens of thousands of dollars to legislative candidates through various limited liability corporations that he controls – each contributing $1,000 – when he otherwise could give no more than a total of $1,000.
“There’s no question that it’s an issue we’ve looked very hard at,” Lucas said. “But what we’ve found – from a constitutional standpoint – is that there are no easy answers. So, at least at this point in the bill, that is not addressed.”
• Do not address the lobbying of local governments and school districts. Lobbyists now must register if they are lobbying state government. But state law does not require lobbyists to register when they are lobbying local officials, who handle hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, the league’s Teague said. “That’s the biggest single hole that I see in what’s been proposed.”
• Does not include a law to protect whistleblowers who report government misdeeds.
“Without a whistleblower law, we’re launching a boat with a big hole in the bottom,” said Common Cause’s Crangle.
‘Reform pushes ... rare’
Crangle said the proposals being made now are “just basically part of what needs to be done.”
He added his organization, Common Cause, only will “support what we consider to be a comprehensive, fairly drastic ethics reform package.”
“We definitely need to get it right,” said the league’s Teague, “because the major reform pushes only come at rare integrals,” the last following the 1990s “Lost Trust” scandal.
Whatever reforms are enacted, some elected officials will try to find ways around them, Teague said, adding the law will need to be adjusted as “people find new ways to serve their own interest rather than that of the public.”
Still, Teague said she will be pleased if the proposals pass.
“If we can get independent oversight, if we can get reporting of private sources of income, if we can get these PACs to reveal their donors when they advocate for a particular candidate, we will have made honest progress.”