Politics & Government

SC’s corruption probe exposed a mess. Here’s how lawmakers will try to clean it up

Former state Rep. Rick Quinn, Rep-Lexington, makes notes before discussing Emma's Law in the S.C. House in 2014. Quinn resigned in December just before pleading guilty to a public corruption charge.
Former state Rep. Rick Quinn, Rep-Lexington, makes notes before discussing Emma's Law in the S.C. House in 2014. Quinn resigned in December just before pleading guilty to a public corruption charge. The State file photo

If the latest revelations in South Carolina’s State House corruption investigation don’t motivate lawmakers to strengthen the state’s porous ethics laws next year, state Rep. Gary Clary isn’t sure what possibly could.

On Dec. 13, the same day former state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, pleaded guilty to misconduct in office, Clary filed a handful of proposals requiring politicians to disclose more about which special interests pay them and how they spend campaign cash.

And the Pickens Republican isn’t alone in trying to address problems exposed this year by special prosecutor David Pascoe’s corruption probe.

Earlier this month, state Sen. William Timmons, R-Greenville, filed several bills strengthening the State Ethics Commission and requiring secretive State House insiders, or consultants, to register above board as lobbyists.

The proposals, pitched ahead of lawmakers’ Jan. 9 return to Columbia, follow a steady trickle of public corruption indictments and guilty pleas this fall.

To date, Pascoe’s probe has brought indictments against six current and former legislators and Richard Quinn, the GOP consultant accused of illegally influencing lawmakers on behalf of special interests that hired his public relations firm.

While the elder Quinn’s firm, First Impressions, was ordered to pay a $3,000 fine for failing to register as a lobbyist, charges against the Columbia-based consultant were dropped when his son, Rick, pleaded guilty earlier this month.

Still, some lawmakers worry the probe has public faith in the S.C. Legislature plumbing new depths.

“If this doesn’t give us a real wake-up call that something needs to be done to really police ethics in the General Assembly, then I don’t know what does,” Clary said.

Charges, spelled out in indictments, paint a portrait of an underground network in which the Quinns – who maintained their innocence throughout – bent the General Assembly to the will of their business clients, among them AT&T, SCANA and the University of South Carolina. Those companies also deny any wrongdoing.

Such accusations highlight the need for S.C. residents to know more about who is paying their lawmakers, some onlookers say.

“That’s something that needs to be forced out into the open,” said John Crangle, a longtime government watchdog who supports both lawmakers’ proposals. “It’s much more widespread than people expect.”

One of Clary’s bills would require legislators to publicly disclose the source and amount of any income they or their family members receive from contracts – including for consulting work – with special interests that lobby the Legislature.

That proposal also would require candidates to disclose more about how they spend campaign money and would block them from paying family members out of their campaign accounts.

The bill would help prevent candidates from treating their campaign accounts like personal ATMs, Clary said.

“Watch who opposes this bill,” he said. “That should tell you an awful lot. I would hope that no one would oppose it.”

Timmons, meanwhile, wants to strengthen the State Ethics Commission, which investigates complaints of ethics violations against public officials. Critics have said the watchdog panel is too underfunded and understaffed to catch major violations. Efforts to reach the Ethics Commission Thursday were unsuccessful.

“We’ve got a problem in Columbia. Nobody trusts us,” Timmons said.

The first-term senator says lawmakers could bolster the Ethics Commission’s budget by as much as $400,000 a year by imposing a 1-percent tax on campaign donations and making lawmakers store those donations in interest-bearing bank accounts.

The Ethics Commission could use the new tax and interest revenue to hire additional staff, Timmons says. He has separate proposals giving the Ethics Commission easier access to lawmakers’ bank records and tax returns.

“The idea is to give them tools and resources to do their job,” Timmons said. “We have done neither, so it’s not surprising that we’re in this situation.”

A flurry of ethics bills

Among other ethics proposals that lawmakers could consider next year:

▪  A proposal from state Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, requiring politicians who are kicked out of office for committing crimes to pay for the costly special elections held to replace them. Filed earlier this spring, that bill is waiting for a Senate hearing.

▪  A bill from Timmons expanding the definition of a lobbyist to include anyone hired to influence public policy through indirect communication with public officials or employees. The current law requires lobbyists to register only if they communicate directly with policymakers.

“It expands the number of people who would have to report their activity,” he said. “That hits home with Quinn.”

▪  Clary’s bill blocking candidates or public officials from using campaign contributions to pay off civil or criminal fines or legal fees.

“If you run afoul of the law, you’re not going to be able to use campaign funds to bail yourself out,” said Clary, a retired circuit judge.

▪  A bill from Clary that would prevent politicians from rewarding their recent campaign donors with government jobs.

▪  And a proposal from state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, requiring so-called “dark money” political groups who push political agendas or try to defeat candidates to reveal their donors.

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks