The time is now for South Carolina ethics reform
BY PHILIP H. JOS and GIBBS KNOTTS
It’s been an ugly year for political ethics in South Carolina. In the face of ethics charges about the use of campaign funds, Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned and admitted wrongdoing in March, and serious ethics charges were made against Nikki Haley’s actions as a state legislator and as governor.
The latest round of accusations resulted in charges and counter-charges of personal vendettas, attacks on the credibility of the accusers and confusion over what the law requires and over who has (or should have) investigatory powers.
Clearly, the standards and process for preventing, investigating and punishing behavior that erodes public trust must be repaired. This conclusion was underscored by the recent State Integrity Investigation, conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International, that awarded South Carolina an “F.”
Earlier in the summer state Attorney General Alan Wilson, a group of lawmakers and the State Ethics Commission began meeting on a revamped ethics reform proposal. A few months later, Gov. Haley made her own proposals and a diverse group of interests, including the South Carolina Chapter of Common Cause, the South Carolina Policy Council and the Coastal Conservation League have been actively developing reform ideas.
Predictably, there is conflict among various constituencies about the best approach, but our state does at least start with an important institutional structure, which is to say that we have had an Ethics Commission since 1975.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming don’t have commissions to provide external oversight of ethics laws. On the other hand, in the most comprehensive study of state ethics commissions to date, University of Florida political scientist Beth Rosenson did not include South Carolina, and several other states as having independent commissions since they do not have jurisdiction over the legislature.
As a starting point, the State Ethics Commission must be given stronger enforcement powers. According to the State Integrity Investigation, a strong agency can “initiate investigations, carry out its mandate without outside interference and impose penalties on those who violate ethics laws across all branches of government.” This should include a meaningful role in handling complaints of legislative, as well as executive, wrongdoing. An interesting alternative, in place in seven states, is a separate Ethics Commission to oversee just the legislative branch.
Such powers must also include a clearer and more robust legal standard for distinguishing legitimate outside employment for legislators and prohibited lobbying on behalf of a special interest. Without clear laws prohibiting these questionable lobbying practices, the temptation will simply be too great for part-time legislators making $10,400 annually to resist.
State officials must also strengthen open records laws to ensure that citizens and members of the press have reasonable access to government documents. Gov. Haley’s proposal, to require the General Assembly to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests, and legislative insistence that executive agencies respond promptly and fully to requests, are both worthy initiatives.
South Carolina has an excellent opportunity. According to the Rosenson study, states that experienced no scandals had a 20 percent probability of enacting strong ethics laws, whereas states experiencing multiple scandals had a 98 percent probability of making such changes. But reform will demand a great deal of political commitment, which will require consistent public pressure. We cannot count on the fact that everyone concerned is somewhat embarrassed at the moment. Embarrassment fades easily in politics.
Not only that, it is important to emphasize that these reforms will cost money. Based on NCSL figures, the average funding for ethics commissions is approximately $1.7 million annually. According to NCSL, the budget for South Carolina’s State Ethics Commission is just $650,000.
With a variety of solid proposals currently on the table, it’s time for meaningful ethics reform in South Carolina. Strengthening laws and investigatory independence will not be easy, but the restoration of public trust and the health of our democracy depend on it.
Philip H. Jos is professor of political science at the College of Charleston. Gibbs Knotts is professor and department chair of political science at the College of Charleston.