The past few years have been tough to watch in South Carolina’s state government. We have seen financial scandals involving our governor, former speaker of the House, senators, and representatives, to name just a few. And even more tragic, we have seen dysfunction in state agencies on an unparalleled scale. These failures of our state government have resulted in harm to our people’s health, privacy, finances and, with the Department of Social Services, sadly even death. One common thread runs through all of these occurrences: A few people usually knew of the dysfunction, but they were too afraid to report it before tragedy struck.
Our leaders have created a culture of fear in South Carolina’s government. A culture where state employees, private businesses and even other elected officials are afraid to speak out about corruption, dysfunction and incompetence. I have personally experienced the frustration of being told about corruption and dysfunction by people who refused to go public because they feared for their livelihoods.
If we are serious about cleaning up state government, one solution above most others cries out for action. Our leaders must pass real whistle-blower protections for employees and contractors who report improper conduct by their superiors and our elected officials.
Perhaps the scandalous failures at the Department of Social Services provide the greatest example. While the administration was stating that the department was performing well, state employees on the ground were secretly telling legislators and other leaders that those claims were lies. Dozens of employees reached out to complain about the falsehoods, but almost every one of them refused to go public because of fear that their superiors and our leaders would punish them. The result was several years of dysfunction that ultimately led to the avoidable deaths and injuries to children in our state.
We can do better. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed H.3722, an ethics reform bill that included desperately needed whistle-blower protections. This reform would provide state government employees with the protections they deserve when they blow the whistle on corrupt and overreaching elected officials and appointees. State employees shouldn’t have to worry about losing their jobs or being punished when they do the right thing. Perhaps if South Carolina had strong whistle-blower protections, we could have learned about the tragedies at DSS or the dysfunction at our Department of Revenue or waste at the Department of Workforce before scandals hit. All the anti-corruption laws in the world will do no good if people are afraid to report violations by their superiors.
Unfortunately, a Senate committee stripped the protections for our employees from H.3722. But we have a chance to restore these protections this week. We cannot afford to let our honest state employees down. They deserve to be protected and encouraged to do what’s right. And we as a state can no longer afford for good people to be quiet.
Call your state senators and tell them we want whistle-blower protections now.
If we care about ethics, responsibility and honest government, the time to act is now.