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After corruption probe, what will SC lawmakers do to reform State House?

S.C. ethics watchdog John Crangle reacts to Merrill’s bond hearing

S.C. ethics watchdog John Crangle reacts to Merrill's bond hearing.
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S.C. ethics watchdog John Crangle reacts to Merrill's bond hearing.

The past two years have been rough for South Carolina’s General Assembly.

On top of the legislative issues facing the state during the 2017-18 session, lawmakers have seen three of their colleagues resign after pleading guilty to misconduct charges, and a former powerful S.C. House member convicted of public corruption.

The State House corruption probe has increased the odds that lawmakers will address ethics issues when they return to Columbia for a new session in January.

“If we don’t have our marching orders now, we will never have them,” said state Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens.

Clary plans to re-introduce legislation to require more transparency in “dark money” — the secretive money that fuels outside groups that run campaign ads, largely anonymously.

Ethics and corruption watchdog John Crangle talks about Dark money and how it affects tax payers and lawmakers in South Carolina.

“They have these vague names like ‘The Committee for All Things Good,’ and you don’t know who’s involved or who their donors are,” said state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, who is co-sponsoring the legislation.

Combating dark money was one of the recommendations in a state grand jury report on public corruption. But the proposal never gained traction in last January’s session.

Nevertheless, it is one of a slew of bills that lawmakers plan to introduce this year to address ethics concerns — from how elections are paid for to how election district lines are drawn, and even how long public officials convicted of corruption should go to jail.

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, won a special election Nov. 6 by running against corruption at the State House. The former prosecutor said his top priority in the new session is creating a mandatory minimum sentence for any elected official convicted of misusing their offices or campaign funds for personal gain.

“The statute right now, as (special prosecutor) David Pascoe has found out, is inartfully drawn,” Harpootlian said, forcing prosecutors to charge offending lawmakers with the more vague, catch-all offense of “misconduct in office.”

New S.C. Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, talks about what he wants to do after being sworn into the S.C. Legislature.

Harpootlian wants to see a more specific corruption charge defined in state law, including a minimum five-year prison sentence for violators.

Former state Rep. Jim Harrison, by contrast, received an 18-month sentence when he was convicted of misconduct and perjury charges in October. Three other now-former legislators — ex-Reps. Jim Merrill and Rick Quinn, and former Sen. John Courson — received no jail time after pleading guilty and agreeing to resign their seats.

Harpootlian also took aim at outside spending in his own race, going to court to challenge ads against him that were paid for by the S.C. Senate Republican Caucus. Harpootlian contended the ads violated state spending limits and a judge agreed, forcing them off the air.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, will re-introduce a measure to force elected officials to pay for the special elections required to replace them if their legal troubles force them to resign.

Fanning’s bill would allow judges to require disgraced politicians to pay that expense in the form of restitution as part of their punishment.

“We’re seeing this more and more,” Fanning said. “At some point, the people have to stop paying for it.”

State Sen. Mike Fanning explains bill to make crooked elected officials pay for special elections needed to replace them.

Fanning wants to see other reforms as well — including requiring more reporting of how campaigns spend their money, and restrictions on political spending by state-sanctioned monopolies, like utility giant SCANA.

He also supports efforts to end partisan gerrymandering in S.C. elections.

A recent poll by Winthrop University showed two-thirds of South Carolinians supported ending the practice of drawing electoral lines to benefit one political party.

Federal judges recently ruled that Republicans unconstitutionally gerrymandered two North Carolina congressional districts by race. But redrawing districts to benefit the political party in power is nothing new and has been going on for years.

Clary and Fanning will reintroduce a bill to create an independent commission — with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans — to handle redistricting, instead of letting lawmakers in the Legislature draw their own districts.

“Hopefully, this time we can get a hearing on it,” Clary said. “That’s basically all you can hope for.”

The Pickens Republican says action is needed to ensure recent problems are corrected, comparing today to the early ‘90s corruption scandal that led to the arrest of several lawmakers and the last round of state government reforms.

“It’s generational corruption at the State House,” Clary said. “There was Operation Lost Trust. Now, it’s this. What will the next generation’s be?”

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Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.