Most serious ethics violations that we’ve seen in South Carolina have involved officials using their campaign funds as if they were their own. This is dangerous because it increases the possibility that donors will expect special favors in return for that money.
That is why it came as a surprise to many of us when a December opinion from the attorney general’s office concluded that legislators can use their campaign funds to pay their own businesses for legal campaign expenses and that legislative caucus leaders can employ their own businesses using caucus funds. Although this opinion does not have the force of law, the problems that it reveals demand attention.
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We understand that reimbursing a candidate’s business for such ordinary campaign costs as printing mailers doesn’t pose a significant risk of corruption. However, wages do represent serious risks. Does setting up a company to pay yourself and your family members for “campaign work” allow candidates to legally convert substantial amounts of campaign funds to private income? According to this opinion, it might. Is every candidate and every candidate’s wife a professional political consultant, or does that even matter? The potential for abuse is very serious indeed.
The attorney general also concluded that it is not illegal for a legislative caucus leader to cause his caucus to hire a business in which he has an economic interest. Underlying this conclusion is the argument that caucuses are private entities and that their activities are “incidental” to the official duties of the members of the General Assembly
Legislative caucuses are defined in law as committees of the House and Senate. They are open only to legislators. Although bills aren’t passed in caucuses, they are the primary mechanism through which legislators work together to develop legislation. Caucuses conduct “legislative planning retreats” and solicit funds from those with business before the Legislature. Caucuses celebrate the bills that they have “passed” in their press releases and websites. These functions point to a role in the legislative process that is anything but “incidental.”
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The private funding used by caucuses amplifies, rather than diminishes, the public danger in their use of funds. If caucus leaders can pay donated money to themselves, the door is open wide for inappropriate influence on these entities that have a prominent role in shaping and passing legislation.
Is this broad opening for potentially corrupt use of campaign and caucus funds consistent with the intent of our ethics law? The public understanding is that the law’s intention is to prevent officials from selling their influence to those who donate to them. If this opinion is correct, we are not protected from that source of corruption.
What should be done to bring the law into better conformity with public accountability? We agree with Cindi Scoppe’s recommendations for enhanced reporting when officials pay their own businesses for campaign or caucus business (“Opinion points to more repairs needed to tattered ethics law,” Jan 5). However, we also believe it should be illegal for candidates to pay themselves or immediate family for personal time spent in campaign work, whether the money is paid directly or through a company.
Scoppe: Attorney general’s opinion points to more repairs needed to tattered ethics law
We also agree with Scoppe that the role of caucuses as an integral part of the legislative process must be recognized in law. Their financial transactions must be managed and reported accordingly. And, as we have recognized all along, we need meaningful disclosure of all private income sources for public officials and their immediate families, as well as truly independent investigation of possible ethics violations by legislators.
South Carolina must have ethics reform that takes into account and corrects the problems exposed by this opinion. Until this is done, we are left in this opinion with a blueprint for legal corruption.
Ms. Teague is a vice president of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina; contact her at Teague_L@bellsouth.net.