COLUMBIA - Recent questions over campaign donations to South Carolina's top prosecutor expose some fundamental problems with the state's ethics laws and how they are enforced, officials and critics say.
Attorney General Alan Wilson has rectified issues that have been raised about his campaign account, said his attorney, Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia. The scrutiny comes as Gov. Nikki Haley and other top lawmakers ญญ- including the attorney general - pursue statewide ethics reform.
Part of such reform could address unclear campaign finance laws. Smith says that the law isn't clear in places and that the attorney general went above and beyond what most candidates do when it comes to ensuring all donations were accepted within the legal maximums. Wilson accepted several over-the-legal-limit contributions, and numerous donors had not been disclosed in a timely fashion, a Post and Courier review of Wilson's public filings showed.
Smith contends that Wilson didn't technically accept over-the-limit donations since those have now been returned. Amending reports for missed donors is also commonplace, he said. As for Wilson's records, a campaign spokesman has said that problems can be attributed to staffers and volunteers who made mistakes. No one has accused Wilson of misusing campaign funds.
Wilson refunded $71,350 in contributions in his most recent filing this month, much of which appeared to be over-the-legal limit contributions, Smith said, adding that any issues with the account have now been squared.
"The attorney general is going above and beyond what is required of him under the law in making those refunds," he said of the latest report.
In a handful of outstanding cases involving potential over-the-limit donations, the attorney general's campaign and the deputy director of the State Ethics Commission differ on whether those contributions can legally be accepted. The disagreement involves legal language defining when contributions can be made.
Both agree that there are places that the law should be written more clearly and that the ethics commission should have more resources to audit reports and ensure compliance.
Critics say that because the attorney general can prosecute ethics-related violations, his campaign finance records should be above reproach. John Crangle, director of Common Cause South Carolina, said candidates for attorney general should be forced to rely on public financing to avoid any potential violations or conflicts of interest.
Crangle said that is especially true because Wilson is involved in an ethics-related case against House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, who has been accused of using campaign money for personal use.
Earlier this month, lawmakers tried to grapple with who could investigate and prosecute Wilson under the Ethics Act if it became necessary. The attempt failed after politics surrounding the Harrell case killed the issue.
Smith said that he has fought for a stronger, more transparent ethics system. The difficult-to-navigate forms that are filled out and uploaded to the State Ethics Commission website could be replaced by campaign account statements, he said. Further, he said the state's public computer database that makes it difficult for the average voter to learn who's donating to whom - and whether a conflict of interest exists - likely needs modernization.
But one of the biggest issues is that the State Ethics Commission is underfunded and doesn't have the manpower to routinely conduct audits or investigations.
"We should have all of those things, and it does take money," Smith said. "These folks have been surviving on what they get."
The commission has nine employees and a budget of $815,515. Next year's budget, as approved by the S.C. House, would be $818,254.
Crangle, who helped write the state's ethics laws in the early 1990s, said the biggest reason that the law is problematic in places and the ethics commission untested is that few serious cases involving campaign finance law have been brought forward. Complaints and legal challenges would allow lawmakers to see the flaws of the state's campaign finance laws and make changes, he said.
Lawyers' disagreements over campaign finance law show "the result of a bad system, the product of a system that doesn't work," Crangle said.
The General Assembly should clear language in the state's ethics laws, said State Ethics Commission deputy director and general counsel Cathy Hazelwood. Also, if a better, more transparent computer system is needed, lawmakers should appropriate more money to do so.
"If the General Assembly wants something more ... they're going to have to change the law and then they're going to have to appropriate some serious money," she said.
Pushing lawmakers to do just that is difficult, not just in South Carolina. The few states that have more strongly-enforced ethics rules - such as California and Washington state - often have them because voters were able to force the issue through referendums, said Bob Stern, a former California ethics lawyer and leader of a nonprofit that looked at such issues across the country.
"Public officials are not interested in enforcing the law," Stern said. "And it's not South Carolina, it's everywhere."
Smith said reforms could be included as part of an ethics reform package or as a part of budget negotiations this year.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.
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