Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: House Ethics panel takes a bold step forward in enforcing campaign finance law

Members of the House Ethics Committee hear testimony at a hearing on ethics law violations.
Members of the House Ethics Committee hear testimony at a hearing on ethics law violations. tdominick@thestate.com

IN APRIL, THE Senate Ethics Committee began a line-by-line review of Rep. Cezar McKnight’s campaign reports and of his campaign, personal and law office bank records.

The review was triggered by Rep. McKnight telling the committee he had used the same account for an unsuccessful campaign for the Senate and a successful campaign for the House two months later. It ended in pretty much the same way as similar audits the committee has conducted when it was alerted to irregularities in the campaign reports of senators and Senate candidates: in a public reprimand against Mr. McKnight and fines of $54,000 for failing to report 31 campaign expenditures and 23 contributions.

Senate Ethics panel orders House Democrat to pay $54K

In June, the House Ethics Committee began a line-by-line review of Rep. Kenny Bingham’s campaign reports, bank records and receipts from his campaign expenditures.

The difference between the two audits is that the House committee had no reason to suspect that Mr. Bingham had violated the law, and it found nothing to indicate that he had. Further, Rep. Bingham volunteered to have himself audited, as chairman of the committee.

House Ethics Committee audit protocol

Earlier this month, Mr. Bingham’s committee adopted a protocol for auditing the rest of the members of the Ethics Committee, followed by the speaker and speaker pro tem, and then, using a computer program to spit out names at random, the entire House. The audits will be performed by the committee attorney, working independently of the committee itself, and each group of audits will be distributed in rough proportion to the House’s party makeup: Because 62 percent of House members are Republicans, there will be six Republicans and four Democrats in the first batch of 10 audits.

In addition to checking legislators’ campaign reports against their bank records, the committee will cross-check them against reports from political action committees and special interest groups showing their donations to legislators.

It’s an extremely smart idea, and one I have been advocating for more than five years. It’s a way to motivate lawmakers to obey the ethics law without having to spend the money it would take to audit every report that’s filed. The combined sense of uncertainty and certainty — you have no idea when you’ll be picked for an audit, but you know that eventually you will be — makes the House’s auditing process far superior to the Senate’s ad hoc audits, which rely largely on serendipity. In nearly every case, it was the senator or Senate candidate who asked the committee staff something that raised questions and resulted in the audit that uncovered serious violations of the law.

Lawmakers still need to add a random audit requirement to state law, so the Senate Ethics Committee and the State Ethics Commission will conduct them as well, and so the House committee won’t decide one day that it’s not worth all the work.

But at this point, it’s hard to imagine any reforms of the ethics law becoming law anytime soon — which is one reason Mr. Bingham said the House committee decided to move forward.

More serendipitous enforcement of SC ethics law

In addition to the random audits, the committee has established a debt-setoff program so that when people refuse to pay their fines, the money will be deducted automatically from their state income tax refunds. It pushed through changes to the forms for filing economic-interest disclosures that allow (and thus encourage) lawmakers to disclose information that is not required by law but ought to be, or to explain what they file. And it is drafting a booklet that provides examples of how campaign funds can be spent.

Mr. Bingham told me he would like to see complaints against legislators investigated by an independent body rather than by the House and Senate Ethics committees, as a bill passed this year by the House but rejected by the Senate would have required. But he has pretty much given up hope, at least for now, of the Senate agreeing to that, “so as long as we’ve got that authority, we’re going to do it the right way, and if at any point in time the committee decides they don’t want to do it the right way, I’m not going to be there.”

At some point, a House audit will turn up discrepancies, perhaps as egregious as the ones the Senate found in the case of Rep. McKnight. And Rep. Carl Anderson. And Sen. Kent Williams. And now-former Sens. Robert Ford and Jake Knotts.

Senate Ethics Committee reprimands

When that happens, the Ethics Committee will have to decide whether to bring a complaint.

But Rep. Bingham is convinced that there will be fewer discrepancies with each passing election cycle, because he says the program already has changed the behavior of House members.

“I just think there is a more heightened awareness of what is required in terms of filing reports,” he said. “When people know you’re looking, it keeps them in line. When you don’t look, it can tempt good people to do things they shouldn’t do, and it’s a very slippery slope, and the way you deal with that is you do what we’re doing.”

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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