AS ATTORNEY general, Henry McMaster demonstrated a deep and abiding respect for the idea that a prosecutor’s job is to seek justice — not necessarily victory.
As one of the chief advocates for a muscular ethics law for public officials, he needs to understand that an elected official’s duty is to obey the law — not simply to wrangle his way out of punishment when he fails to do so. Unfortunately, Mr. McMaster appears to be attempting the latter in his dispute with the State Ethics Commission over nearly $73,000 in contributions he accepted for his 2010 campaign for governor.
So as he prepares to be sworn in today as South Carolina’s last independently elected lieutenant governor, he should add one last-minute task to his to-do list: Make this right.
At issue are 51 donations that exceed the legal limit of $3,500 per campaign cycle. Mr. McMaster’s lawyer argues that they are perfectly legal because a 1992 ethics opinion allows candidates to start a new cycle after an election to retire debt. It would be one thing for Mr. McMaster to fight these charges if the opinion actually said that, or if there were any gray area whatsoever in the law, or even if this was, as his spokesman says, a “technical” matter. It does not, there is not, and it is not, and no one with even a passing understanding of either the law or the English language could conclude otherwise.
Very clearly, the opinion said that a candidate could retire a debt from a 1990 election and did not have to abide by the $3,500 limit. But that was because that limit did not exist in 1990. Nothing about that situation even remotely resembles Mr. McMaster’s 2010 experience.
And to clarify what might seem a bit confusing: Mr. McMaster’s situation also is entirely different than the one involving current Attorney General Alan Wilson, against whom the Ethics Commission properly declined to pursue a complaint. Mr. Wilson violated the law by accepting over-the-limit donations within seven days after the 2010 primary election instead of waiting until the eighth day, when they would have been legal, and he returned the donations after The State reported on them this spring.
We do not believe that Mr. McMaster willfully violated the law, any more than we believe Mr. Wilson did. We believe that Mr. McMaster delegated his fundraising to campaign staff, who say they know of several candidates who have done the same thing, for years. And to his credit, Mr. McMaster doesn’t take as strident a position as his attorney. He told us on Tuesday that he believes the law can be read both ways — although he remains convinced that his reading is correct, and argues that this is a novel question deserving of some accommodation by the Ethics Commission. He said that he hopes to meet with the commission staff and say, essentially, “Here are all the facts, and having heard that, I want to make it right; tell me what I need to do.”
This needs to happen sooner rather than later, and in as submissive a way as Mr. McMaster describes. Mr. McMaster has spent a career advocating for a stronger ethics law and building a good-government reputation. Continuing to defend these donations threatens not only to undermine his personal reputation but also to undercut his effectiveness as a primary spokesman for ethics reform, in much the same way that Gov. Nikki Haley undercut her own effectiveness on this issue with her refusal to admit that some of her actions as a state legislator were unethical.
Certainly there’s nothing wrong with Mr. McMaster trying to work out a settlement with the Ethics Commission to reduce or eliminate any fines. But he also needs to admit that his campaign violated the law, even if unintentionally, and he needs to return the illegal donations. And he really ought to think about whether it’s appropriate for him to employ the services of an attorney who has his own reputation for presenting intellectually insulting arguments, apparently in an attempt to razzle-dazzle his clients’ way out of accountability when they run afoul of the law.
We certainly don’t believe it comports with the character of the man we endorsed enthusiastically in his past four statewide election campaigns.