During Charleston's recent mayoral election, a group pumped thousands of dollars into messages praising one candidate and ripping another. It was money not publicly disclosed or subject to the state's $3,500 limit on giving to noncandidate committees.
The stealth campaign was legally possible because of a federal judge's ruling a year earlier -- a ruling that did away with the state's rules and limits for noncandidate committees.
It was similar to the so-called Super PACs that have aired ads, mostly negative, in the current Republican presidential primary.
Could this become a new norm in South Carolina politics? Lawmakers don't seem in a rush to close the loophole.
Last fall, the group Citizens for a Better Charleston built a website, mailed fliers and aired TV spots promoting Charleston mayoral candidate and City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie and slamming incumbent Mayor Joe Riley.
The effort had little effect. Riley blasted it publicly and went on to collect two-thirds of the vote in a five-way race.
State Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell and Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, both Republicans who live in Charleston, said the Legislature might address the issue but must do so cautiously.
"Somebody will bring the issue up," McConnell said. "The thing we have to be very careful about is free speech, and I'm going to err on the side of free speech. ... There are some constitutional limits there."
McConnell said there's a difference between efforts to promote a policy position versus a specific candidate.
"That might be able to be tightened down as far as when you're advocating for a candidate versus a policy issue," he said.
Harrell agreed the Legislature might make changes, "but we want to be very careful about violating someone's right to speech."
Gov. Nikki Haley sounded a similar theme.
Haley said she wasn't aware of the situation in Charleston's election. Asked if she would favor the Legislature addressing the situation, she said the state needs to strike a balance between freedom of speech and public disclosure.
"I think everybody wants to see a balance," she said. "It's finding that line between freedom of speech and letting people say what they need to say and also having disclosure so that people feel like they know who's behind it."
The change in South Carolina parallels that national debate over money in politics: One shaped recently the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling.
That ruling permitted corporate and union funds to be spent directly on election advertising, a practice that previously had been restricted. It opened the door for the so-called Super PACs playing a big role in the current GOP presidential race.
But the South Carolina change stemmed from a different lawsuit: S.C. Citizens for Life v. (State Ethics Commission Chairman) Kenneth Krawcheck.
S.C. League of Women Voters President Barbara Zia said the league is concerned about the flood of special interest money into elections --from both court rulings.
"The transparency issue is one that concerns the league," she said. "That arose in the Charleston mayoral election. People were unaware of where this money was coming from."
Zia said this type of spending -- or even the prospect of it -- can discourage people from seeking office.
"It probably acts as a deterrent to people who are considering running but who are not independently wealthy or have independently wealthy contacts," she added. "For the health of our democracy, this is very risky."
Republican candidates might benefit more from the status quo, as the party in power often has more access to campaign cash, but it can cut both ways.
House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-Calhoun, said he would support changing the law to require more transparency.
"The governor and everyone else talks about transparency," he said. "What better way to have transparency? I think every dollar in the political process ought to have a name and occupation attached to it."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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