Just how much some S.C. voters care about ethics reform could become clearer when they cast their ballots in a contentious Richland County House race in a district just miles from the State House.
In that race, both candidates are accusing the other of having ethical conflicts.
Republican state Rep. Kirkman Finlay, a restaurant owner and Columbia-area businessman who represents District 75, introduced ethics-reform legislation during his first term in office, partnering with the League of Women Voters to craft a half-dozen bills.
Lynn Teague of the league says Finlay has been receptive to tougher ethics legislation and applauds his work.
But Finlay’s opponent, Democratic lawyer Joe McCulloch, charges one of Finlay’s proposals “tried to give politicians like Bobby Harrell a get-out-of-jail-free” card in a mail flier sent to residents in the district.
Last week, Harrell, the powerful House speaker, pleaded guilty to misusing campaign money and agreed to resign from the House.
McCulloch also says Finlay’s decision to hire a lobbyist to represent his business before the Legislature, where the Republican is a member, is a “conflict of interest.”
‘Take ... the gotcha out of politics’
Only 308 votes separated Finlay and McCulloch in 2012, when they raced to represent District 75, which includes parts of Forest Drive, Fort Jackson Boulevard and the Shandon areas as well as the Kings Grant neighborhood.
Residents in those neighborhoods have seen their rematch play out in their mailboxes with multiple fliers in a day from both sides.
Finlay’s mailers tout his two-year record, and his website lists ethics reform as a top priority.
Finlay unsuccessfully attempted to pass ethics-reform legislation during his first term. One large ethics-reform bill likely would die under its own weight, he said, so he authored a set of smaller bills – including one that focused on campaign money.
Finlay’s bill initially was too broad, permitting candidates and public officials to fix inaccurate campaign filings, the league’s Teague said.
So she asked Finlay to add restrictions to allow a lawmakers to correct a mistake only one time, similar to a warning for speeding, she said. The corrected mistake also would have been limited to no more than $2,000, she said.
Finlay supported every restriction that she requested, Teague said.
McCulloch’s flier charges Finlay’s bill would have given Harrell a get-out-of-jail-free card, a position shared by other critics of the bill.
But Teague says that criticism is unfair.
“If Kirkman Finlay had been in the business of trying to get Bobby Harrell off … there is no way he would have been perfectly happy with my (restrictions),” Teague said.
Finlay, now chairman of a House subcommittee focused on reforming campaign finance rules, said his proposed campaign finance bill was intended to “take a little of the gotcha out of politics.”
‘Ignoring the obvious conflict of interest’
McCulloch’s criticism of Finlay’s ethics goes beyond Harrell.
For 2014, one of Finlay’s businesses, Gonzales Land & Timber LLC, registered Steven Fooshe as its lobbyist before state government on issues affecting agriculture.
Finlay, a member of the House agriculture committee, also employs Fooshe as a political consultant.
While that arrangement is legal, McCulloch said the law should be changed to prohibit sitting lawmakers from employing lobbyists. He also said Finlay should have disclosed the lobbyist relationship on his statement of economic interest.
“Ignoring the obvious conflict of interest and talking a big game about ethics is hypocritical,” McCulloch said.
But Finlay said his employment of a lobbyist is not the problem.
“The issue is not a legislator hiring a lobbyist. The issue is a lobbyist hiring a legislator,” Finlay said. “And Mr. McCulloch, who intends to run for the Legislature as a lobbyist, is more susceptible to that pressure than anyone.”
McCulloch, an attorney, said he was a registered lobbyist for a nursing group several years ago and has lobbied the General Assembly since but not for pay.
“Certainly not for any reason other than my belief that the cause was appropriate,” McCulloch said.
For example, McCulloch, a criminal defense attorney, said he lobbied on behalf of a law to require preservation of evidence of DNA for testing in cases where there are claims of wrongful conviction. This year, he also approached several legislators and asked them to adopt a law that requires that interrogations of criminal suspects be recorded, he said.
Teague, who said the League of Women Voters does not endorse candidates, said Finlay hiring a lobbyist to represent his business is better than lobbying himself.
“It is cleaner to pay a lobbyist to represent your point of view in the Legislature than it is to lobby yourself to something that benefits you personally, economically,” Teague said.
However, ethics watchdog John Crangle of S.C. Common Cause said McCulloch is raising a legitimate issue about Finlay having a conflict of interest.
Finlay should recuse himself from voting on any issues that come before General Assembly where he might have conflict between his farming and legislative responsibilities, Crangle said.
Finlay said the agriculture committee has not dealt with any issues that would benefit his business financially.
“I would be required to recuse myself from voting on anything that financially impacted me directly,” Finlay said.