I NEVER WAS offended that former House Speaker Bobby Harrell was allowed to plead guilty to minor charges and get off with probation for using his campaign account to pay for trips he made for personal travel — and trips he never actually made.
The most important goal was to get him out of office — not just because of the things he did that got him indicted but, perhaps even more importantly, for the cancer he was spreading across state government.
After Attorney General Alan Wilson opened a criminal investigation, Mr. Harrell and his friends became obsessed with putting up roadblocks to thwart it, like trying to sneak through changes in state law to strip the attorney general of the authority to investigate legislators and legalize the crimes Mr. Harrell was accused of committing. And we won’t even talk about the truly chilling things that happened in the courtroom.
Still, a lot of people were offended that Mr. Harrell didn’t go to jail. So it was no surprise to see hand-wringing over the plea agreement that former Rep. Jim Merrill was allowed to enter into earlier this month, following his indictment on a long list of ethics charges.
Oh, this agreement is tighter than Mr. Harrell’s — Mr Merrill has to not only cooperate with investigators but provide information that leads to more indictments, or else he could be prosecuted on the other 29 charges against him — but still there was no jail time. And legally if not politically, he could run for his old office again.
More worrisome to worriers than the conviction per se is their growing worry that there won’t be any blockbuster convictions in this investigation, which we keep hearing will be bigger than Operation Lost Trust, which took out a tenth of the Legislature. If it turns out to be a dud, they lament, that will result in a corruption pandemic, because lawmakers will get the message that anything goes.
That’s one possibility. But there are others.
One is that corruption is not as rampant as some believe. If we don’t see a lot of convictions, I certainly hope that will be the reason. And if we don’t see a lot more indictments, I think that will be an extremely reasonable conclusion to draw, since Solicitor David Pascoe has been so aggressive about using a common-law misconduct in office charge that can be brought even absent any actual criminal acts.
But the absence of a string of blockbuster convictions could also mean that ethics advocates have been right all along.
I got a call a few weeks ago from a woman who was apoplectic about how Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman has been able to make money through contracts between companies he was affiliated with and state government. How does he get away with that, she asked. Well, I’m not aware of any credible allegations that he’s violated any laws, I answered.
Incredulous, the woman demanded: “So you think it’s just fine for him to do this?”
That’s not what I said, I replied; I said I didn’t know that he had done anything illegal. Regular readers know what I told her next: The fact that something is legal doesn’t mean it’s right. There are a lot of things that are wrong but legal.
She wasn’t satisfied, but she moved on to the “illegal” way SCANA was trying to charge ratepayers billions of dollars more for two abandoned nuclear reactors. Actually, I told her, that’s not illegal.
Again incredulous, she responded: “So you think it’s just fine for them to do this?”
And again I explained that the fact that something is legal doesn’t mean it’s right. That there are lots of things that are wrong but legal. That this is one of the central shortcomings in S.C. law. That what we need to do is insist that things that are wrong are made illegal.
I don’t think I ever convinced her, but this is a crucial distinction — perhaps the central distinction — when it comes to ethics laws for the people who write ethics laws. It’s the reason we have to keep pushing our legislators to strengthen our law.
A lot of big ethics convictions can demonstrate that an ethics law is too weak. After Lost Trust, for instance, we realized that the law was written in a way that actually encouraged a culture of corruption to develop. Just as often, though, it’s the lack of convictions that demonstrates that an ethics law is too weak — because things that are illegal elsewhere are legal here.
Ethics advocates have been telling us for years — and I agree with them — that our ethics laws don’t go far enough to prohibit lawmakers from taking actions that benefit themselves and their donors. If they’re right — and I believe they are — why would they expect those laws to lead to convictions of people accused of doing the very things that they have been telling us ought to be illegal but aren’t?
I don’t want either of these outcomes, but wouldn’t it be even worse for legislators to be convicted for doing unethical things that are not actually against the law than for them to get away with doing some things that are? The way you stop both from happening is to fix the law.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.