House ethics bill doesn’t deliver needed reform
BY ASHLEY LANDESS and BARBARA ZIA
Less than two weeks ago we joined with other South Carolina groups to expose an effort by House leaders to sabotage ethics reform and evade disclosure and independent scrutiny. House leaders’ plan to decriminalize ethics violations and force citizen activists to become lobbyists was outrageous, and a diverse coalition of citizen groups jointly and publicly denounced it.
Fortunately, some House members broke ranks with leadership and stepped up to stop them from decriminalizing corruption and squelching free speech. But while that effort was successful, the bill that passed still would not accomplish real reform.
Unless the Senate offers substantive changes, it will be business as usual for S.C. politicians. That would be unfortunate, because there has never been a greater public demand for change.
But the House bill touted as “major reform” fails to accomplish it, and allowing politicians to claim otherwise would be a disservice to the state. For example, while it mandates some disclosure of private income sources of elected officials, there are loopholes and exceptions that provide “ways around” full reporting. Income sources under $2,500 could remain secret, along with payments to spouses and other immediate family and some interest income.
To be blunt, there would still be ways to secretly pay a politician, and that must finally change.
Income disclosure isn’t designed to embarrass elected officials or expose their businesses to unfair scrutiny, but simply to ensure that they can’t benefit financially at the expense of the public. Conflicts of interest are not preventable if they are not exposed to the public. The fix is easy: All officials should disclose not only the public sources currently required, but all income sources that reportable to the IRS. That simple reform would expose existing and potential conflicts for officials, and give citizens at least enough information to raise further questions if necessary.
The failure to require full income disclosure is disappointing because it seemed the House was on track to do so in the original version of H. 3945. But what was not a surprise was the failure to end the absurd self-policing that lawmakers stubbornly insist is their right. House members laud their plan as “giving the public input” in the ethics policing process because they would appoint some non-lawmakers to their joint committee. A committee of legislators and their chosen appointees will not provide the accountability that we need.
This battle over the commission structure is not a minor one. Unless the commission is independent and the process public (after a finding of whether there is probable cause), citizens will never be sure their legislators are truly accountable. The current ethics commission is appointed by the governor, with advice and consent of the Legislature and with terms beyond the governor’s. That is the right entity to handle ethics complaints, and only in South Carolina would legislative leaders stubbornly argue that they have sole authority to police themselves with no checks and balances.
The bill also contains an “extra” layer of protection for politicians by requiring “willful” violation of ethics laws. This is an unnecessary addition. What’s interesting — but not surprising — is that the “willful” burden does not apply to the section that makes it criminal to discuss a complaint against a politician. Citizens are forbidden to discuss the nature of a complaint, a violation of free speech that would likely be struck down if challenged. That language isn’t necessary — there should not be a higher burden of proof for charging politicians than exists for citizens.
Finally, the House bill fails to exempt citizens from having to register to lobby to speak at local public hearings. That’s likely an oversight — House members restored citizens’ protection to speak at state public hearings but failed to add it at the local level. That error would result in a chilling effect on free speech, and illustrates the danger of the secret rushed process orchestrated by legislative leaders to protect politicians from being punished for corruption.
This is the very climate that has motivated an unprecedented demand to end the concentration of power and secrecy that makes South Carolina’s government among the nation’s most at risk for being corrupted. Our reform movement is historic, not just because of the diverse coalition of citizens but because it would have the kind of dramatic impact that would open up real possibility for everyone. This opportunity is for us to restore citizen government, not provide politicians with a false victory lap. The House plan is smoke and mirrors. We won’t settle for it, and neither should anyone who represents us.
Ashley Landess is president of the S.C. Policy Council. Barbara Zia is co-president of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.