AT ITS BEST, an ethics law prevents public officials from serving their own personal interests or the interests of their campaign donors at the expense of the public interest. It does that by requiring full reporting of potential conflicts of interests, outlawing some behaviors that involve conflicts and creating a muscular enforcement mechanism with serious penalties.
Our law isn’t at its best. We let lawmakers hide most of their potential conflicts, participate in decisions that could help or hurt them financially and police themselves. It’s like we’re asking them to put their interests ahead of ours.
The bill the House is set to debate this week lets an independent commission appointed by the governor, the House and the Senate enforce legislators’ compliance with the law. We’re not sure legislators should name two-thirds of the members, or elect those members, but since they couldn’t serve on the panel, this is a major improvement.
So too is requiring public officials to report the sources of all of their income and income of family and business associates. They wouldn’t have to report the amount in most cases, but a legislator might be less inclined to push a bill to benefit, say, hospitals if we knew he was doing consulting work for one. And they would have to recuse themselves from voting not just in the full House and Senate but also in committee and subcommittee on matters that could benefit them.
The bill also better arms voters to make informed decisions by cutting from 20 to two days the pre-election blackout period, when we can’t find out who gives money to candidates, and fixing a glitch that exempts non-candidate committees from reporting requirements.
But the bill falls far short on enforcement. It fails to significantly increase penalties and, worse, actually decriminalizes most violations. Now, we don’t necessarily think that politicians need to go to jail for accepting too-large donations or even converting them to personal use. But criminal penalties are the very foundation of an anti-public corruption law.
Turning ethics violations into civil matters would put them off limits to the attorney general and solicitors. That’s not only a step backwards but a monumentally hypocritical one, since the bill also creates a public integrity unit that Attorney General Alan Wilson has proposed to investigate the worst ethics violations.
The bill also fails to give the ethics commission investigative tools to discover people who deliberately hide or disguise donations or expenditures. Requiring random audits to make sure all the money that flowed into and out of the campaign account was reported will give lawmakers more incentive to be honest, and increase the chance of catching those who aren’t.
If lawmakers voluntarily obeyed the provisions of this legislation, we wouldn’t have an ethics problem in South Carolina. But they certainly wouldn’t be scared into compliance by the threat of getting caught, or by the punishment they would face if they are caught.
That’s a significant shortcoming, but it’s one that legislators can correct. And they will — if they’re serious about giving the public a reason to trust their government.