Those legislators who insist that South Carolina’s ethics laws are just fine should try explaining how lawmakers differ so widely on what income from public entities they believe they are required to disclose.
The State newspaper reported this week that only 23 percent of what lawmakers reported was in the form of salaries and reimbursements from public sources. And it gave numerous examples of how those numbers were flawed because everyone has a different idea about what is necessary to report.
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, took the cautious route. He listed the value of every property he owns, including his $1.1 million house. Disclosure is required, he said, because the value of his property is enhanced by public services like roads, water and sewer.
At the other end of the spectrum, Rep. B.R. Skelton, R-Pickens, did not even disclose his $22,900 legislative salary until asked by a reporter. He said he didn’t know he had to.
The law is unclear, allowing elected officials to file pretty much what they want to.
Oversight is severely limited, so no one is calling them on any shortcomings of disclosure.
And if a problem is detected, investigations are handled internally, leaving the public to wonder if the law is being enforced or if colleagues are going easy on each other at the public’s expense.
Attempts were made this spring to clarify and tighten the ethics law. The House approved a law that would expand the definition of income that elected officials would have to report.
But the Senate failed to make any headway. In fact, senators threaten to water down the requirement that they reveal the sources of their income.
That would be a crippling change. Legislators could easily avoid disclosure by funneling income through an LLC. The public might never recognize how it might have been used to influence a legislator’s vote.
Opponents to that disclosure requirement say making public such information could be harmful to their businesses or clients. It could sour a business deal or impede a lawsuit.
Sadly, it doesn’t appear that those opponents are looking for a solution to their concerns. Their answer has been simply to remove that requirement altogether.
Meanwhile, every other state in the nation requires such disclosures by its elected officials, according to the State report.
The ethics bill is still alive, and Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, R-Richland, has appointed a bipartisan committee to study the issue further before the Legislature takes it up again next year.
Here’s one example why action is needed. One legislator did not disclose the $28,000 he earned from the state’s Medicaid program as an emergency room physician.
In contrast, a senator who owns a pharmacy and medical-supply company, reported receiving $1.6 million in Medicaid payments.
The system clearly needs fixing, and the General Assembly should be held accountable for doing so.
The public should recognize that those who resist looking for an acceptable way to expand disclosure must be getting money they don’t want anyone to know about.