Politics & Government

After ethics snafu, SC lawmakers move to change how they accept gifts from public

Ethics watchdog on corruption in South Carolina in the 90s and today

John Crangle is the Executive Director of Common Cause in South Carolina and he recently wrote a book on Operation Lost Trust, an FBI sting that saw 18 South Carolina legislators indicted in the 1990s for corruption charges.
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John Crangle is the Executive Director of Common Cause in South Carolina and he recently wrote a book on Operation Lost Trust, an FBI sting that saw 18 South Carolina legislators indicted in the 1990s for corruption charges.

The S.C. House moved Wednesday to change its rules on accepting gifts from the public and special interests, two weeks after a donation of nearly 200 books to legislators caused confusion about whether the gifts needed to be reported on ethics filings.

The proposed change, approved by the House Rules Committee and sent to the full House for a vote, includes new rules expected to discourage anyone from trying to curry a state representative’s favor with expensive gifts. It also would make it easier for House members to determine whether a gift must be reported on ethics forms.

“It takes the duty of determining value off the shoulders of Ethics Committee staff and places it appropriately on the shoulder of the party desiring to give the gift,” said House Rules Committee chairman Alan Clemmons, R-Horry.

The new rule seeks to remove the occasional confusion that ensues when lawmakers find gifts of debatable value have been dropped off at their State House offices.

Anything worth more than $25 must be disclosed on lawmakers’ statements of economic interests. But lawmakers have complained a gift’s value isn’t always clear. Typically, some legislators ask the House Ethics Committee’s staff to find out the value. Others find it easier to simply return the gifts.

Case in point: During the first week of the 2019-20 legislative session, longtime ethics advocate John Crangle dropped off copies of his book on State House corruption for all 170 lawmakers. A number of House members asked what to do with the books.

Ethics Committee staff found the book on sale online for nearly $40. But they decided the book would not need to be disclosed after learning the book’s wholesale value was less than $25, according to Crangle.

The new rule would prohibit anyone from dropping off gifts of any value in the House chamber. It also would require a lawmaker’s written signature before a gift worth more than $25 could be dropped off.

The gift maker must document any gift worth more than $25 with the S.C. Ethics Commission.

State Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, had complained about the hassle of gifts and the rules governing them, saying they need to be simplified.

“I don’t want people to give me stuff,” Finlay said. “It is fraught with peril.”

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.

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