Attorney General Alan Wilson’s aggressive actions against public officials suspected of violating the state Ethics Act should come as no surprise. His father, then-state Sen. Joe Wilson, was one of the most aggressive advocates of the drastic reforms that were included in the ethics reform bill that came out of Operation Lost Trust, the biggest corruption scandal in state history.
There was a disappointing lack of interest in the Legislature for reform when the bill was introduced in January 1991, at a time when the people of South Carolina were being shocked on an almost daily basis by newspaper headlines revealing more and more public officials being indicted for bribery, criminal conspiracy, extortion, obstruction of justice, and drugs. But Sen. Wilson told the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which he was a member, that when legislators were forced to vote on the record, they would suddenly pay attention and do something. He was right.
Sen. Wilson said during a Judiciary Committee meeting that one of the problems of the Ethics Act then in effect was that citizens who knew of violations by public officials did not have enough expertise to carry the burden of proof and were afraid to complain for fear of retaliation.
When it came time to write the portion of the ethics bill dealing with the abuses of lobbyists who gave legislators free trips, free liquor, free food and even cash money, Sen Wilson demanded a total ban on lobbyists spending any money on politicians. The vote in committee was 6-5 against the ban, but it was included in the final version of the bill that was signed into law by Gov. Carroll Campbell.
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When the bill came up for a final vote in the Senate, Sen. Wilson was one of only five senators who voted against it on the grounds that it was too weak and did not deal with the issue of lawyer-legislators practicing before state boards and commissions, an issue that remains in contention today.
It has been very encouraging to see Attorney General Wilson take such an active interest in enforcing the Ethics Act and other laws against public officials, much more so than any other chief law enforcement officer since the law was passed in 1991. There has been too much tolerance for abuse of office in his state, and it is time to stop elected officials from stuffing their pockets and living off of politics.
John V. Crangle
Common Cause/South Carolina