When first asked to serve on the South Carolina Commission on Ethics Reform, I hesitated. I have served on well-intentioned committees only to see countless hours of study and work amount to few actual results. I then learned that Gov. Haley had put together a group of independent, highly experienced individuals with nothing at stake in the results — except to restore trust and integrity in our government. I learned that the governor had committed her full support to the commission’s recommendations regardless of her personal views. I agreed to serve with the hope that my training as an attorney, as well as my former experiences as a Marine Corps officer, a federal prosecutor and a state legislator, would prove useful to the work of the commission.
In 2002, before I sought election to the House of Representatives, I was concerned about whether I could continue making a living as a lawyer while undertaking the demanding responsibilities of being a part-time state legislator. Much of my law practice involved representing private clients before state regulatory agencies, as well as representing governmental agencies. I wanted to comply fully with all legislative ethics rules — both their letter and their intent — and to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. But I also wanted to make sure that I could still earn a fair living as a lawyer, as I had been doing for many years before seeking political office. Before filing for office, and then after election, I sought and obtained ethics advice from House ethics attorneys about the do’s and don’ts of serving as a lawyer/legislator. I learned that there were various areas of ethics laws that were not as clear as they should be, that disclosure was a fundamental principle of our ethics laws, and that obtaining clear guidance on ethics compliance, as a sitting member, could be subject to unnecessary political influence.
With that background, I committed to the work of the Commission on Ethics Reform. I wanted us to develop strong recommendations that would make our ethics rules clear and easy to follow, require greater disclosure of interests that have the potential to be conflicts of interest, and make ethics compliance decisions less subject to political influence. All 23 recommendations presented by the commission accomplish these objectives. We recommended that ethics laws should be enforced equally and independently for all public officials, including members of the General Assembly, by a single statewide ethics commission. This one change could remove the potential for improper politics — whether favorable or unfavorable — from the enforcement of ethics laws, and go a long way to restoring the public’s trust in its elected officials. The commission’s recommendations also include various specific recommendations to make ethics requirements easier to understand and follow.
The commission also offered strong recommendations on income disclosure. We recommended that public officials disclose all sources of private income and, for certain specific categories, the actual amounts of income. It may be impossible to identify every specific situation where an actual conflict of interest can arise at all levels of government. But greater disclosure promotes true transparency, helps prevent conflicts of interest — actual and perceived — and restores public trust.
On the other hand, the commission was also concerned about the financial privacy of public officials and their family members because ethics laws apply not only to full-time state officials and part-time legislators, but also to numerous members of state boards and commissions and local governing bodies. We wanted to avoid unnecessary intrusions into private life that would discourage citizens from seeking public office. We debated at length whether fair public scrutiny required knowledge of how much money a part-time elected official makes from all work and investment sources. Ultimately, we recommended disclosure of all income sources, but only amounts of income from sources potentially related to official duties. These private sources include those that: 1) employ lobbyists, 2) contract with government agencies, or 3) are regulated by the official or agency.
We also broadened the reach of disclosure requirements by recommending that lobbyist registration and regulation apply to all levels of government, and not just to state government as is the case under current law, and by recommending full disclosure of fiduciary positions that a public official holds outside of his public duties.
Under current ethics laws, public officials do not have to disclose all sources of private income. They only have to disclose sources and amounts of income from governmental sources and, in the case of state legislators, sources and amounts of private income earned by representing clients before state agencies. Expanding the income disclosure requirements for public officials, their immediate family members and their businesses will give greater disclosure of a public official’s interests and the potential for actual or perceived conflicts of interest. This transparency, at all levels of South Carolina government, can help restore the public’s trust in our elected officials.
I join the other members of the Commission on Ethics Reform in urging the General Assembly to adopt the commission’s recommendations, including the requirements for greater income disclosure.
Ben Hagood, a Sullivan’s Island resident, served as a Republican in the Legislature from 2002 to 2008.