Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: What Brian Newman tells us about needed ethics reforms

MEET BRIAN DeQuincey Newman. He’s a former Columbia City Council member and current (suspended) lawyer who just pleaded guilty to not filing state income tax returns for 2012 and 2013.

He’s also my new poster child for requiring public officials to tell us more about their income.

Not because he somehow imagined he had filed and paid $10,000 in state income taxes when he had not; that’s a criminal matter already covered by state law.

Not because his guilty plea exposed questions about a program envisioned to mentor local and minority-owned businesses — such as why in the world taxpayers should pay someone to be taught how to do a job that the taxpayers would then turn around and pay him to do. Those are questions for Richland County to take up with the contractor that devised the scheme.

No, Mr. Newman is my new poster child because nothing in state law required him to tell us that he was being paid to work on the county’s penny-tax transportation program. And that provides a fabulous illustration of how little we know about how our elected officials make their money — even when it’s government money they’re making.

We usually think that the state ethics act requires elected officials to file annual statements of economic interests reporting all the money they make from government. But as Mr. Newman reminds us, we only get that information if the work relationship is set up in very specific ways.

Mr. Newman’s wasn’t. Rather than being paid by Richland County, he was paid by the team of developers that the county is paying to run the penny transportation program. And elected officials don’t have to report money under those circumstances. The same would be true, by the way, if a legislator was receiving money from a company hired by a lobbyist, rather than directly from the lobbyist.

So even if he had remained in office long enough to have to file a 2015 economic disclosure report this spring, Mr. Newman would not have been required to report the $38,000 he received last year from the development team for being mentored, or the $44,325 he was paid for doing title research for the development team.

And this isn’t even a stretch of the law. Public officials are only required to report the income they receive directly from government, from contractors that do business with the “governmental entity” for which they work (which doesn’t cover a city council member receiving money collected by the county council) and, in some limited circumstances, from lobbyists and organizations that hire lobbyists.

This is a problem, a loophole, if you will, as Mr. Newman so nicely illustrates.

Now, it’s possible that we could close this loophole by imagining every arrangement of employee and subcontractor and other work relationships, and requiring our elected officials to report those that involve government. And then even if we thought we had imagined them all, we’d be surprised to learn that our ethics police have interpreted the guts out of our law — as we were when the State Ethics Commission decided that the “income” public officials must report does not include consulting fees, because they aren’t “salary.” (That, by the way, does fall into the category of a “stretch of the law.”)

But thinking of all of those work relationships is not the solution. The solution is to require our elected officials to tell us the sources of all of their income. Simply that. And we need to define “income” the way the IRS defines it.

State law acknowledges that we need to know when our elected officials are being paid by the government for something besides the job they were elected to do. That’s how we find out some instances when our representatives might be putting their own personal interests ahead of the public interest.

This is particularly true of state legislators, who pass all sorts of laws funding and otherwise affecting government agencies, at the state and local levels. It’s useful to know, for instance, if a House member who’s pushing to double the budget of a state university is also being paid for a do-nothing job at that university. It’s helpful to know if a senator who’s pushing to give more authority to local governments has a well-paid position with murky responsibilities with a city or county.

For the same reason and every bit as much, we need to know when our elected officials are being paid by the private sector: so we can tell whether they have a personal financial stake in the way they are voting.

Opponents of full income disclosure, when they admit that they are opponents — and in the Senate, where this idea is on life support, they generally do not admit this — say it’s meddlesome to require them to tell us about their private-sector employment.

I’ve never found that argument convincing, and less so since we’re not even suggesting that they tell us how much they make — simply who pays them. But as Mr. Newman’s case reminds us, even private-sector employment can sometimes be funded by taxpayers. And we have this nagging feeling that this happens with greater frequency among elected officials than among the general public.

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

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