Ethics secrecy undermines public trust

IN DOCUMENTS FILED last week with the Supreme Court, Gov. Mark Sanford argued that the only way to maintain or restore (take your pick) public confidence in the governmental ethics process is by keeping the work of ethics investigators secret.

He argued that the Legislature drew a giant black-out curtain around the Ethics Commission "as a necessary means to assemble relevant witnesses, to obtain proper documents, to avoid outside pressures from the General Assembly and the media, and to preempt politically-motivated leaks."

And he crowned it off with this: "The State Ethics Code was designed to restore the citizenry's trust in South Carolina's government in the wake of Operation Lost Trust. Its procedural safeguard of confidentiality over the agency's internal papers is meant to ensure fairness for respondents and independence for the Commission."

We're not sure whether he is right with his ultimate argument that all these rhetorical flourishes are intended to bolster: that the Legislature didn't really allow the targets of investigations to waive their confidentiality when it passed a law that ... allows the targets of investigations to waive their confidentiality. It could be that the Legislature was just trying to quell complaints by good-government advocates who argued that sunlight is the best disinfectant. It certainly wouldn't be the first time legislators went to extremes to make it look like they were doing something they really weren't doing.

But this we do know: Mr. Sanford's assertions about the value of secret government are outlandish. (The fact that he would have been the first to castigate anyone else who had said such a thing is irresistible to point out - although completely irrelevant to our point.)

Just the opposite is true: It is those secrecy provisions that undermine the public's confidence in government ethics laws - and do much to undermine the public's confidence in government in general.

What the public knows very well is that the secrecy provisions are designed not to protect the integrity of ethics investigations but to give special protection from public scrutiny to the politicians themselves.

Secrecy allows the Ethics Commission (or the Senate or House Ethics committee) to sweep complaints under the rug: Unless the target of a probe waives the secrecy, as Mr. Sanford made a huge spectacle of doing, no one can even confirm that an ethics complaint has been filed; to do so is a crime. And so if ethics officials dismiss a complaint, no one will even know it was filed. Even if they decide that there was a violation of the law and announce a punishment, for all we know the target broke 10 times more laws than were announced.

That's because, unlike a criminal trial or a civil lawsuit, we never get to see the evidence - or even the charges. And that's what Mr. Sanford is in the state Supreme Court fighting to preserve.

If it wasn't already patently obvious to legislators how seriously this damages any shred of credibility the ethics review process has with the public, then perhaps the governor's hypocritical self-congratulations will be enough to wake them to the problem - and prompt them to let some actual disinfecting sunlight into a system that was supposed to enhance public trust in government.