Cindi Ross Scoppe

Lt Gov’s fundraising exposed an even bigger loophole in SC ethics law

The fundraising efforts of SC Lt Gov Kevin Bryant, left, have highlighted a potential loophole in the state’s campaign-finance law that legislators need to close before it results in a lot of compromised public officials. Bryant is pictured in January with Reps Gilda Cobb-Hunter and Todd Rutherford.
The fundraising efforts of SC Lt Gov Kevin Bryant, left, have highlighted a potential loophole in the state’s campaign-finance law that legislators need to close before it results in a lot of compromised public officials. Bryant is pictured in January with Reps Gilda Cobb-Hunter and Todd Rutherford. AP

ADD THIS TO the list of problems with South Carolina’s campaign-finance law: You don’t have to run for election to hit up special interests for campaign donations.

We learned about this because Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant has raised more than $100,000 for the 2018 election for lieutenant governor — even though there will not be a 2018 election for lieutenant governor.

At first glance, this looks like a fluke — a bizarre situation you get when you’re in the middle of changing a position from elective to appointive and you have a wildly ambitious incumbent who wants to run for something.

But this merits some attention even now that Mr. Bryant has opened a gubernatorial exploratory account, because I don’t think this is just a Kevin Bryant thing — or even just a lieutenant-governor’s-office-in-transition thing.

It looks to me like the most recently discovered loophole in the loophole-laden campaign finance law.

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Kevin Bryant’s latest campaign finance report

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What allowed Mr. Bryant to collect donations of up to $3,500 from people who might want official favors from him is a section of the campaign-finance law that I had never paid any notice to until State Ethics Commission Director Steve Hamm said it made Mr. Bryant’s fundraising legal: the definition of a “candidate.”

A candidate, the law says, is not simply someone running for elective office. A candidate is “a person who seeks appointment, nomination for election, or election to a state or local office.”

Do you have any idea how many people are appointed to government positions in South Carolina?

Do you have any idea how many people are appointed to government positions in South Carolina? I don’t either, but it’s many thousands, since we run so many state and local agencies via unaccountable part-time commissions.

Granted, most of those positions don’t pay anything, so would-be commissioners probably wouldn’t go to the trouble of raising money to mount a campaign to convince the city council or county council or even the governor to appoint them. And even if they did, who would donate?

But there certainly are people who desperately want to be appointed to some positions. And there are people who would love to ingratiate themselves to such people, because of what they could do for them now or in the future.

Think a seat on the Clemson or USC Board of Trustees, for example. Think director of the Commerce Department or the Transportation Department or — here’s one that’s open right now — DHEC.

Maybe a would-be DHEC director wouldn’t be willing to campaign for the job, but I can think of a lot of companies that would be happy to contribute a lot of money to a campaign to get their favorite candidate appointed.

Can you imagine a bunch of polluters offering to donate the money and even put together the campaign to convince the DHEC board to hire her as director?

Can you imagine a bunch of polluters offering to donate the money and even put together the campaign to convince the DHEC board and the governor to hire her (did I mention that the job is open right now?), if she’ll just apply for the job? I can.

Talk about conflicts of interest.

A similar scenario could play out with a lot of other state agency directorships. And local government positions. (But not judicial positions, where candidates are bound by judicial ethics rules.)

I should note that Mr. Hamm is not convinced that the Supreme Court would see the law the way I do if someone tried to do this; he thinks the definition ought to be read in the context of a law that regulates candidates for election. That makes some sense, but it doesn’t explain why the definition of candidate would include people seeking appointive office if the law wasn’t supposed to apply to them.

Former Sen. Wes Hayes, who knows more than anyone about changes to the state ethics law over the past 30 years, does not remember why that language was included when lawmakers passed our first substantive campaign-finance law in 1991. The skimpy law on the books before 1991 said “candidate” included people nominated for appointive positions. The House broadened that definition to the current language, but the Senate, which wanted the weakest ethics law it could get, limited “candidate” to people seeking elective office; the House version won out.

When I spoke with Mr. Hayes on Wednesday, he speculated that people seeking appointive positions were defined as candidates in the 1991 law and the pre-1991 law to make them comply with some provision that applies only to “candidates,” though he doesn’t know what. Like me, he feels certain that the Legislature did not intend to allow every would-be regulator to go hat in hand to special interests seeking money to campaign for appointment. Like me, he sees the potential for precisely that sort of abuse.

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Given all the other campaign-finance loopholes that the Legislature won’t close, it might be a waste of time to say this, but this one needs closing. Now that people realize it’s there, there’s just too much room for abuse.

And it’s an easy fix: Remove “appointment” from the definition of “candidate.” And to avoid creating new problems, add a sentence to forbid candidates for appointment from accepting donations.

That ought to be one of the first bills filed and passed when the Legislature returns to work in January. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go ahead and pass that bill that explains when and how next year’s gubernatorial nominees are supposed to select their running mates.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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