Editorial: Non-disclosure reports underscore need for SC ethics overhaul

WHEN PEOPLE ignore a law en masse, that usually means that they aren’t aware of the law, that the law is unclear, that it is insufficiently policed or that the penalties are inadequate — or all of the above.

Although there are parts of the state ethics law that are unclear, and badly written, the part that requires legislators and other public officials to report the money they receive from government is not unclear. Inadequate, but not unclear. And although there might be some small-town appointed officials who are not aware of the law, our legislators certainly are.

So State legislative reporter Adam Beam’s conclusion that legislators’ economic disclosure statements reveal “a wildly inconsistent system with little oversight, making it impossible to say definitively how much lawmakers earn from public sources,” underscores our long-held contention: that legislators realize that no one is likely to notice if they violate the ethics law, and in any event the consequences are inconsequential, at least for those legislators, who continue to police themselves.

Economic disclosure statements are supposed to point to possible conflicts of interest, and “inconsistent” reporting is nothing new; legislators have been complying only spottily since the law was adopted, more than two decades ago. Nor is it necessarily always intentional, or surprising: Imagine that the Internal Revenue Service didn’t audit tax returns; imagine further that if it accidentally happened upon unreported income, it just called you up and asked you to amend your report — no questions asked, no penalties. You might get a little sloppy too.

Some of the more troubling inconsistencies Mr. Beam discovered included Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman’s failure to list $735,000 in state highway contracts awarded to a company he partially owns, even as he worked to increase highway funding, and physician and Rep. Kris Crawford’s failure to list $28,000 in Medicaid payments, even as he advocated expansion of Medicaid. A more blatant example of non-compliance was Rep. B.R. Skelton, who didn’t list his legislative salary, even though the law clearly requires public officials to report all income of $500 or more “received from a governmental entity.”

Legislators all have explanations for why they didn’t report income, but the explanations don’t wash. And the fact that they would fail to report even their legislative salary — that’s nothing new either — raises questions about what else they aren’t reporting. You’d have to know about legislators’ income in order to know whether it’s missing, and as long as they aren’t reporting it well, you see the problem.

What makes this even more egregious is that we require our legislators to report far less about their income than any other state in the nation. And yet, they don’t report even what we ask of them. It might seem strange to suggest that officials should be required to tell us even more about who pays them, but without that information, there’s simply no way to tell when they’re serving their own interests instead of our interests. So requiring them to report at least the source of all of their income should be non-negotiable.

Also non-negotiable: We need to give ethics enforcers the tools and the mandate to enforce the ethics law. That means more staff to review reports; it means random auditing of the sort that the IRS uses to keep us on our toes. It also means reviewers who aren’t so directly beholden to legislators, as are the legislative staff who take the first look at the reports. It means enforcers who are independent of the Legislature, rather than legislators themselves. And it means stiffer penalties when the law is ignored — or deliberately violated.