COLUMBIA - Adult toys. Clothing for a spouse. Thousands of dollars in birthday and Christmas cards.
The way some South Carolina lawmakers use their campaign dollars doesn't look much like campaigning. In the cases cited, lawmakers were held accountable for abusing their campaign accounts and forced from office.
But those examples are just the most egregious, said John Crangle of Common Cause, who has been advocating on ethics issues for decades. He's insistent that doing away with using campaign accounts for what are dubbed "office expenditures" should be a linchpin of such reforms.
Instead, the ethics debate in recent days hasn't addressed the issue. The ability to use campaign dollars for office-related costs is too broad and tempting for lawmakers, Crangle said.
"They seem to feel that any expenditure they have is office related," he said. "This loophole has got to be closed and a reform bill that doesn't stop campaign funds for non-campaign purposes is a fake reform bill."
Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, who has been pushing the ethics issue, said it's perfectly reasonable to use campaign accounts for office expenses. In cases where lawmakers have not - such as former Sen. Robert Ford, who famously bought adult toys that he said were gag gifts, and Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, who bought his wife clothes - they were forced from office largely because of ethics complaints brought against them. Ford also bought birthday and Christmas cards with campaign funds.
"It's not some deficiency in this current law that let them get by, it's the provisions in the current law that forced them out," Campsen said.
Still, Crangle and others agree there are other measures - particularly the call for an independent body to investigate members of the House and Senate - that would spell meaningful reform for a state that has long struggled with the intersection of politics and ethics. Campsen's bill would force politicians to disclose, for the first time, their sources of private income. South Carolina is one of the few states that lacks the requirement.
A House bill passed last year also has the requirement. It would also ban so-called Leadership PACs and require Super PACs to disclose sources of income, two methods of raising money in campaigns that advocates say have been abused in the past.
Most of those changes are not controversial, Campsen said. But the push for an independent ethics commission to investigate ethics complaints against members of the Senate and House is meeting with some resistance. Some senators have focused their criticism on the make-up of the body, which Campsen proposes should be appointed by both the governor and General Assembly.
"Without an independent investigation, the bill as is would pass fairly easily," Campsen said. "And some of the nit-picking at the composition of (the independent ethics commission) is veiled opposition to the whole idea of an independent investigative body."
Many in the General Assembly have held up the Ford case - where the ethics committee has brought two complaints concerning Ford's alleged personal use of campaign dollars for personal use - as an example of why the current system works. Crangle and others say that action against Ford came late.
"Their discipline is very tardy," Crangle said. Ford has said that he was unfairly singled out by the Senate. "I consider myself the most honest elected official right now in this country," he has said. He could not be reached Friday for further comment.
Campsen acknowledged that his ethics bill is not perfect, and that he expects changes as the debate goes on. Even the reforms he is seeking, which some regard as basic, have been met with resistance as debate has begun in the Senate.
"Aren't we growing government in a way that doesn't make a difference?" Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said at one point in the debate on the Senate floor.
Ford himself has said that senators investigating themselves is bad policy.
"One of the biggest problems I see, as a victim of the SC Senate Ethics Committee, is when a member has to suffer what he is feels is personal vindictiveness," Ford wrote in an email to constituents. "A public body should not have the ability to regulate themselves. When you have a House Ethics Committee and a Senate Ethics Committee that oversee their own members it is one of the worst examples of ethics and non-transparency imaginable."
As Campsen put it, "The hens are guarding the henhouse."
Campsen said it's possible that the independent investigative body may be a non-starter with powerful members of the Senate. But he's not ready to concede it yet.
"There is a real desire for the independent investigation among the public and people have a sense they don't want members of the Senate investigating themselves," he said. "There's a lack of confidence in that process."
The Senate is expected to resume debate on the issue this week.
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