The situation today is much different than in 1991 when the last major ethics act was passed by the South Carolina Legislature.
There is no Operation Lost Trust bribery scandal implicating 18 members of the General Assembly and major executive officials who enraged the voters going into the 1992 elections for both the House and Senate.
Instead, we have the antics of former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, spending campaign funds for clothes, and resigned Sen. Robert Ford, frittering his funds on sex novelties. And we have the self-promoting jobs of Rep. Nikki Haley and semi-campaign trips by Gov. Nikki Haley on the taxpayers' dime, which although a bit tawdry, appear, according to relaxed standards of a legislative ethics committee and the State Ethics Commission, to be within the field of play.
There is little to be gained by passing another weak ethics law like the one of 1991 when Gov. Carroll Campbell was no help at all and, in fact, fought behind the scenes against the effort of conference committee chair Sen. Tom Moore, D-Aiken, myself and others who wanted to cap contribution limits at $500 for all offices. At least this time Gov. Haley, while not proposing a reform package herself, has appointed a well-qualified task force and adopted and advocated all of its major proposals, opposing none. Yes, the proposals include a ban on leadership PACs, a mandatory disclosure of all groups and funds influencing elections, and limited income disclosure by state officials.
What must be included if we want a strong comprehensive ethics reform bill are provisions not in the bill passed by the House and now in the Senate. A new whistleblower law must be passed to protect the jobs of those who report government corruption. Aggregate limits on corporation and PAC campaign contributions must stop candidates from taking more than 40 percent of their money from such sources and break the domination of big money economic interest groups over the election and policy-making process of this state. Now many legislators get most if not nearly all from corporate interests.
A local government lobbying registration bill based on S.601 from Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, must force those who professionally lobby county, city, and school districts to expose who they are, how much they spend, and what they want.
In addition, new laws must end the phenomenon of the eternal campaign whereby candidates raise money continuously throughout their terms of office, pressuring interests to donate while the Legislature is considering bills affecting the same interests and, in effect, functioning as an unending shakedown operation and a market for vote-buying.
Certainly, the use of campaign funds for non-campaign purposes must be outlawed. The so-called office related exception which allows officials to use campaign funds as a slush fund for real or fraudulent expenditures has been abused for more than two decades by officials who use campaign money to buy tires for their cars, buy clothes for themselves, and pay for their private airplanes, including depreciation, taxes, interest on the loan, and insurance.
Finally, the State Ethics Commission itself can stand some serious reform, especially if it is to assume new responsibilities of investigating the conduct of state legislators. The selection of commissioners should be done not only by the governor, as it now is, but also by the House and Senate. Commissioners must be removed upon expiration of their terms and not carried over as at present when four seats are vacant and the entire five remaining seats are held by holdovers whose terms have expired, in some cases for years,
The position of executive director must become tenured so that he/she can only be removed for good cause rather than at the pleasure of the commission under current law.
The citizens of South Carolina must demand a real, not a weak ethics reform law. Another weak ethics law will result in more corruption and more scandals.
John V. Crangle is executive director of Common Cause of South Carolina.