Why ethics, FOI laws need fixing
Gov. Nikki Haley’s campaign broke the law regarding donations for her gubernatorial bid, and she is paying the price with a fine and a loss of public confidence.
The infractions, investigated by the State Ethics Commission, turned out to be more missteps than a widespread disregard for the law. But they are nevertheless another reminder that our elected officials need to hold ethical standards and freedom of information in higher regard.
The commission, after negotiating with the governor for two years, fined her last week for failing to provide required information about eight people who contributed to her 2010 campaign. She lacks the address of one contributor who gave $200, and was unable to provide proof that she had the addresses of seven more within seven days of the donations, as law requires. And she failed to put dozens online as required by law.
Further, her campaign still does not know the occupation of several hundred donors, which is also required.
There is an important reason law requires candidates to provide that information. Voters have a right to know — and a good reason to want to know — who is giving a candidate money so they can be alert to in-office behavior that might smack of favoritism to donors or to the industries they represent.
Mrs. Haley insists that the violations were inadvertent. Certainly they were errors of omission.
In contrast, there’s no question that the Legislature intentionally stalled, obfuscated and ultimately failed to pass two important bills: one to strengthen the ethics law and another to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act.
Apparently, they don’t want their dirty laundry to be scrutinized too much by the public or by an independent ethics board.
Citizens should insist on ethical behavior from elected officials. But the existing protocol for legislative ethics investigations raises as many questions as it answers.
A legislator charged with an ethics violation is investigated by his peers — his colleagues and friends. No thinking voter can be confident that the results are not biased as a result.
Other elected officials in South Carolina, including the governor, have to face the State Ethics Commission.
As for the Freedom of Information Act, some legislators are loath to release correspondence that might shed light on how and why they voted on issues. What do they have to hide?
Gov. Haley must pay a $3,500 fine and reimburse the Ethics Commission $2,000 for its investigation. She will also forfeit to the Children’s Trust Fund $4,176.78 from eight donors. The total cost to her is $9,677.
It is important to recall that Mrs. Haley last year established a top-notch committee to analyze the state’s ethics laws and recommend improvements. The group did fine work, and she endorsed its findings. Unfortunately, the Legislature failed on its end.
Elected officials need to live within the existing law. And they need to strengthen those ethics and Freedom of Information laws.
There’s no greater priority for legislative action.