One of the most important issues facing the state legislature this year is ethics reform, according to the Charleston Area League of Women Voters.

The group held a meeting Sunday to watch a film about the need for campaign finance reform and to hear an attorney talk about the state's culture of ethics.

More than 100 people packed a theater at the Cinebarre in Mount Pleasant to watch the film and hear a talk by Jay Bender, a professor of law and journalism at the University of South Carolina and an attorney for the S.C. Press Association.

"We do not need ethics reform in South Carolina," Bender said. "We need cultural reform."

The problem in South Carolina is that voters act as if lawmakers are some kind of elite ruling class who deserve special privileges, he said. In fact, the bigger their transgressions, the more likely lawmakers are to get away with it, he said.

For example, former Gov. Mark Sanford was fined $74,000 for 37 ethic violations after his trips to meet his lover in Argentina. He continued his term as governor and was elected to Congress.

Gov. Nikki Haley paid a $3,500 fine for an ethics violation for not keeping records of her campaign contributions, and she's still a viable candidate for re-election.

Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, a Charleston Republican, faced an ethics investigation after complaints that he financed his personal airplane out of campaign funds.

On the other hand, state Sen. Robert Ford, a Charleston Democrat, resigned after it was disclosed he bought adult toys with campaign money.

It seems the lesson is that if a lawmaker wants to get away with an ethics violation, do it big, Bender said.

Bender also pointed out that it's common for school boards to hide between confidentiality clauses to avoid releasing public information on superintendent evaluations.

"Until we change the culture, it doesn't make any difference what the Freedom of Information Act says," Bender said.

Bender's talk followed the viewing of a documentary called "Priceless," a film that focused on lobbyists for big agriculture and oil and coal.

More information on ethics reform is at the league's web site at lwvcharleston.org.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.