AT A PARTY a few weeks ago, a friend asked me what was going on at the State House. “I’m really worried about the Harrell situation,” I replied, and he gave me a puzzled look and explained, apologetically, that he doesn’t pay much attention to state government.
So I told him that the State Grand Jury was investigating allegations that House Speaker Bobby Harrell had converted campaign funds to personal use, and it looked like a Circuit Court judge was about to quash the investigation.
He shrugged. “Those donors know what the deal is, don’t they?” he asked, and as I tried to explain that the law is designed more to protect voters from corruption than donors from diversion of funds and that in any event a crime is a crime, he interjected: “I wonder how much money the investigation is going to end up costing.”
Unlike everyone else I’ve encountered who thinks the Harrell investigation needs to be dropped, my friend is not a close friend or supporter of the speaker; he didn’t even recognize his name. Before I was able to stop hyperventilating, someone else joined us and the topic was changed, and I was left to wonder over the cavalier attitude of this otherwise responsible person.
A few days later, I received a note from a reader thanking me for a column on the significance of Circuit Judge Casey Manning’s then-pending decision (he since has in fact quashed the investigation, declaring that prosecutors must get legislators’ permission in order to investigate them for taking bribes, converting campaign funds to personal use or otherwise profiting from office).
“I agree with all your columns on Bobby Harrell,” she wrote. “But honestly you can’t be surprised at what is happening. I truly believe that most of our legislators are pond scum. They are, for the most part, anti intellectual, pedestrian, provincial and dishonest. Most are in the legislature to make money from deals and contacts and their behavior makes our state the laughing stock of the nation. Everyone of them needs to be voted out of office but that will only happen when pigs fly.”
It’s a sentiment that I hear frequently, and as I was thinking that I ought to write again about how the main problem with our Legislature is not individual legislators but The Legislature as a whole, and the willingness of those individual legislators to accept the way things always have been done, I was struck by the connection: My correspondent’s cynicism and my friend’s cavalier attitude were branches of the same tree.
My correspondent clearly doesn’t condone what Mr. Harrell is alleged to have done; she just doesn’t think it’s any different than what any other legislator does. Dig down a bit deeper, and the same is true of my friend.
And I realized how blind our legislators are when they proclaim that there’s no need to overhaul our ethics law because voters aren’t clamoring for them to overhaul our ethics law.
They interpret their constituents’ silence as satisfaction with the current state of affairs, when in fact it is the opposite: Voters have lost all confidence in legislators’ ability to reform the political system. Voters are convinced that this system is so thoroughly corrupt, so completely beyond repair, that there’s no need to even try to enforce the laws we have — much less pass tougher laws.
What our legislators need to understand is that their failure to correct these problems is a cancer that will destroy us if left untreated. It will undermine what public trust remains — and our government, and the state of South Carolina.
But legislators aren’t the only ones with a blind spot.
What the public needs to understand is that the circumstances surrounding Mr. Harrell are not normal.
It’s not normal for legislators to use the donations of people who want legislative favors in order to reimburse themselves for flying their own planes up and down the east cost, to what in some cases look like vacation destinations. It’s not normal for legislators to write notes on their legislative stationery to state regulatory boards asking for special help for their business, or to suggest that they can change the law if they don’t get their way.
And if these actions cross the line into converting campaign donations to personal use and using their position for personal gain, that’s not normal either. They are serious abuses of our system of government, at their heart the very thing that all of our ethics and campaign finance laws are designed to prevent.
It’s not normal for the text of bills to keep getting “mistakenly” altered in a way that would provide legal protection to a powerful legislator who is being investigated for possible abuse of office. It’s not normal for judges to raise bizarre legal theories in cases that involve the legislators who elect them, and then to write decisions that lack any foundation in law or fact.
“Yes,” I replied to my correspondent, “I am surprised, because my impression of legislators is much less bad than yours. Some are stupid; most are average; some are extremely intelligent. Some are corrupt; most are not. I believe that most of them are honestly trying to do their best to improve our state; I might disagree with them over what would improve our state, but I think that a majority still has that as its goal.”
Of course, I can tell people that until I’m blue in the face. They aren’t going to believe me until they see not just individual legislators but our Legislature behaving in a way that will help our state more than it will help our legislators.
They could show good faith by revoking the immunity from criminal prosecution that Judge Manning just granted to them all, rather than simply counting on the Supreme Court to reverse his order.
And by putting someone other than themselves in charge of investigating less serious violations of the ethics law.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.
6 legislative days to revoke immunity
Circuit Judge Casey Manning ruled on May 12 that the attorney general needs legislators’ permission to prosecute them for profiting from their offices. The Legislature must act before the June 5 adjournment to make it clear that the attorney general can prosecute without legislators’ permission. Read more here.