Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Latest corruption study points to ethics reformsSouth Carolina needs

IT’S EASY TO get depressed looking through the latest evaluation of state ethics laws by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity, which once again placed South Carolina among the states whose laws make corruption most likely.

But scroll past the part about how South Carolina is one of just three states that don’t require legislators to report where they get their income … and how South Carolina is one of just 10 states where special-interest groups can spend all the money they want to support or oppose a candidate without telling anyone what they spend or how they spend it or where they get it … and how South Carolina is one of just two states where the Legislature elects the judges who preside over trials involving ethics violations, should any legislators — against all odds — be charged with a crime … and how South Carolina is one of just six states where the Legislature polices its own ethics compliance. (Actually, that last one wasn’t covered in this report; imagine how much worse we could have done.)

Scroll past all of that, and read the part about our no-cup-of-coffee law, which prohibits a lobbyist from buying anything for a legislator — even a cup of coffee.

Read the State Integrity 2015 report

Read about our no-donations-from-lobbyists rule.

Then read about the lobbyist laws in other states.

Like Idaho, where one lobbyist legally spent $2,250 to host a state senator and his wife at a golf tournament, because a $50 limit does not apply unless the money is spent “in return for action” on a bill. (In South Carolina, we call that a quid pro quo, and you go to prison if you get caught doing it.)

Or Georgia, which was so embarrassed by its score in the center’s 2012 report that lawmakers slapped a $75 cap on the value of gifts that lobbyists can give to public officials.

Or Virginia, which the 2015 report cited as making the most dramatic reforms as a result of the 2012 report. One of those reforms put a $100 cap on the value of gifts that lobbyists can give to public officials.

Did I mention that in South Carolina, it is against the law for lobbyists to give anything to public officials? Even a cup of coffee?

Our lobbyist law certainly isn’t perfect. Lobbyists can “unregister” after the legislative session ends, write checks to legislators’ campaigns and then reregister before the next session starts. The law only applies to people who admit they’re lobbying. Not to “consultants” who walk, talk and quack like lobbyists but don’t meet the official definition, and so are free to shower legislators with all the coffee — or pretty much anything — they want. And lobbyists’ employers can wine and dine legislators in groups, some as small as three people.

But unlike our campaign and financial disclosure laws, our lobbyist law is tough.

Why not stop ethics violations before they escalate into lose-your-office-sized crimes?

That’s no accident. It was written in the wake of what was at the time the worst state corruption scandal in U.S. history — a federal bribery sting dubbed Lost Trust that snared one out of 10 legislators, who took cash bribes from a lobbyist. It was written because legislators realized that they had allowed and even encouraged an atmosphere that allowed and even encouraged them to think of lobbyists as their friends, their confidants, their drinking buddies, their meal tickets. And when you have that sort of relationship, it’s all too easy to take that next step, to accepting not just a nice dinner but a pocketful of cash.

A string of high-profile campaign-finance violations was supposed to have the same effect on the financial reporting side of the ethics law. Those reforms already in the works suddenly looked like a sure thing in 2012, when the center released its first report card, ranking South Carolina as more susceptible to corruption than all but five other states.

I suspect one reason the 2012 report and the ethics violations that surrounded it didn’t produce reform is that people have actually been convicted of violating the state ethics law. It’s challenging to argue that our law allows elected officials wide-open opportunities to divert campaign money to personal use when then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell and then-Sen. Robert Ford were convicted under state law for doing precisely that.

But while it doesn’t allow legislators to use their campaign accounts to buy sex toys (Mr. Ford) and underwrite the operation of their private planes (Mr. Harrell), the law does encourage such illegalities. It encourages them by not drawing clear lines between what is legal and what is not, by not making it likely enough that people will be caught if they cross those lines and by not setting high enough penalties for those who are caught.

Laws that spell out clearly where the line is between personal and political spending don’t just make it easier to convict those who cross the line; they help honest lawmakers stay on the right side of that line.

How the Legislature quietly removed barriers to prosecuting corruption

Laws that require lawmakers to report whose financial interests might conflict with the public’s interest don’t just help voters figure out who is putting their benefactors’ interests ahead of the public’s interest; they cause a lot of lawmakers to recognize those conflicts, and vote differently.

Laws that are actually enforced don’t just get crooks out of the State House; they convince lawmakers that violating the law is not worth the risk.

These are the sorts of laws that the Center for Public Integrity says states can pass to reduce the risk of corruption. These are the laws that reformers in South Carolina want to pass. These are the laws that our Legislature needs to pass.

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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