State may be ready for ethics revamp
Forty-four states require legislators to disclose who they work for. Many also require some disclosure about how much those legislators are paid by their employers.
Revamping S.C. ethics laws
A look at some of the questionable ethics and open-records situations that S.C. law now allows:
Legislators do not have to say whom they work for, meaning they could have conflicts of interest when voting on certain legislation. More than 40 other states require lawmakers to disclose their private employers.
Legislators do not have to disclose their legislative pensions, sweetheart deals superior to the pensions that state employees get, according to critics. A one-sentence law, passed in 2002, lets legislators receive a taxpayer-funded pension instead of a salary after 30 years of service. As of April, more than 40 percent of the state Senate and 7 percent of House members had “retired” but remained in office, receiving lifetime retirement pay.
State law has little to say about lawmakers and other elected officials who help family and friends get taxpayer-funded jobs. The law bars a public official from hiring a family member for a job that the public official directly supervises or manages. But that leaves lots of room for jobs once- or twice-removed from the person in power.
Loopholes in the state’s open-records law make it difficult, sometimes impossible, for citizens to get the information from public agencies. Lawmakers also are exempt from the law. State agencies can deny access to government records; there is no appeals process if a request is denied; and agencies can charge excessive fees for gathering the information, making it too expensive to request information.
Proposals on the table
Key lawmakers, the S.C. Ethics Commission and the state attorney general are working now to overhaul state ethics laws. Four main areas they are reviewing:
Cleaning up language to clarify the financial-disclosure requirements for candidates seeking office. This year, more than 250 candidates were booted off the ballot because of confusion over filing those requirements.
Requiring lawmakers to disclose who employs them to expose any conflicts of interest before they vote on proposals that could benefit their employers.
Defining “committee.” A 2010 federal ruling declared the state’s definition unconstitutional. That threw out regulations limiting contributions to political parties. The result? Unlimited fundraising by and donations to political groups that do not have to disclose where the money came from.
Beefing up the investigative ability of the S.C. Ethics Commission. Limited staff and resources hobble the commission’s ability to look into charges of ethical wrongdoing. One possibility: The state attorney general could lend investigators to the commission.
Not South Carolina.
Palmetto State politicians only must disclose money earned from government agencies and from contracts between their employers and government agencies. There is no requirement to disclose the private companies that legislators work for, some of which may stand to gain financially by laws passed by the General Assembly.
Recent events have exposed many weaknesses in South Carolina’s ethics and open-records laws, weaknesses that leave taxpayers in the dark whey they try to watchdog what legislators are doing and hold them accountable for their actions.
Case in point
A recently completed ethics investigation into Gov. Nikki Haley that cleared the Lexington Republican of wrongdoing, reaffirming state law that the former state representative was not required to tell anyone that, as a S.C. House member, she had a consulting contract with a Midlands engineering firm that did millions of dollars worth of work for the state.
And that was not an isolated case.
S.C. ethics regulations are so weak – so watered down and riddled with loopholes – that the state was given an “F” grade this year and a ranking of 45th among the 50 states from the State Integrity Investigation, a project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.
Critics says the failing grade was well-deserved.
“We have no idea who pays these guys (legislators),” said Ashley Landess, director of the S.C. Policy Council, a conservative Columbia think tank that espouses limited government and libertarian-leaning politics. “Therefore, we have no idea whether there are conflicts of interest.”
Most states are working to become more transparent, said Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the Washington, D.C.,-based National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Nationally and internationally, we’re seeing changes that increase transparency, which means more disclosure” from legislators and lobbyists, Kerns said.
New ethical day?
South Carolina could follow suit.
State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, and the House Ethics Commission, the S.C. Ethics Commission and state Attorney General Alan Wilson began talks in July on overhauling the state’s ethics laws.
The group hopes to prefile legislation in December, prior to the January start of the Legislature’s new session.
State ethics laws were last overhauled in 1991 following Operation Lost Trust, an FBI sting that snared more than two dozen S.C. lawmakers, lobbyists and others in one of the largest legislative public-corruption scandals in U.S. history.
The laws hammered out in that scandal’s aftermath were a national model at the time, Hayes recalled. He was chairman of the House Ethics Committee then and served on a conference committee that hashed out the post-Lost Trust ethics laws.
“We made some big changes,” Hayes said. Those included requiring lobbyists and groups that did business at the State House to publicly disclose some information and requiring lawmakers to disclose income that they received from the state.
“But we didn’t take the final step of (requiring lawmakers to disclose) all sources of income,” Hayes said. “It was just one of those things that we were hammering out a compromise and taking it one step at a time.
“Now, I think we’re ready to take that final step.”
It could be a hard fight.
In the years since Lost Trust, including the legislative session that just ended, many legislators and public officials have pushed for increasing government accountability and opening up public access to government information.
But changes never happened.
Instead, politicians, including most recently Haley, talked about the need for change.
“It makes good campaign rhetoric, and that’s why you get so much talk about transparency,” said John Crangle, a lobbyist and director of the S.C. chapter of Common Cause, a government watchdog group. “But a lot of public officials like that what they’re doing is hidden because they’re making money off of those undisclosed transactions.”
Legislators’ income isn’t the only issue. Others range from cronyism and nepotism to government secrecy.
State law, for example, has little to say about lawmakers and other elected officials who help family and friends get taxpayer-paid jobs.
State law only bars a public official from hiring a family member for a position that the public official supervises or manages. That leaves lots of room for jobs once- or twice-removed from the person in power.
This summer, for example, Haley’s 14-year-old daughter landed a part-time job with a state agency, whose director is named by and reports to Haley. Last year, the wife of the governor’s chief of staff also landed a job with that same agency.
The public also can have a difficult time getting access to documents, correspondence and other public records from state agencies and public officials.
That difficulty illustrates the need to update the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), open-government advocates say.
They cite several problems with the law. State agencies can deny access to records; there is no appeals process if access is denied; and state agencies can charge excessive fees for gathering information, making it too expensive for the public to get information.
Also, lawmakers are exempt from following the law.
“There is no good reason for them to be exempt,” said the Policy Council’s Landess.
But a majority of legislators do not want to make it easier for the public to find out what they and government are doing. Instead of improving the open-records law, this past legislative session featured political fireworks about it.