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Editorial: A road isn't enough. This man needs an ethics law named for him

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Statehouse lobby (copy)

A lot of people who spend their days hanging out in the lobby between the SC House and Senate chambers aren't registered as lobbyists. A lot more should be. Jamie Lovegrove / Staff

It takes a lot to get state officials to take back honors they never should have bestowed to start with, as evidenced by highway signs commemorating former politicians who went on to be convicted of buying votes and other federal crimes. But some things are beyond the pale, like allegedly soliciting a prostitute.

We’re glad the S.C. Transportation Commission plans to vote next month on whether to change the name of the John Hardee Expressway, named for the former commissioner who agreed earlier this year to plead guilty to obstructing a federal investigation, and then was arrested this month on the prostitution charge.

We’d be even happier if the commission and the Legislature would unname some of the other infrastructure that honors politicians and politicians’ friends and supporters. Or at least prohibit new honors.

But while it’s inappropriate and unwise to name public structures for still-living politicians, Mr. Hardee’s recent run-ins with the law highlight a much bigger problem, and it has to do with our too-weak lobbying law.

Federal prosecutors say what they originally thought were bribes were actually retainers to pay Mr. Hardee for introducing their unnamed witness to government officials.

It’s possible that the witness was telling prosecutors anything he could think of to mitigate his own legal troubles. But it’s also easy to believe that he didn’t see any difference between paying for that matchmaking service and paying bribes.

After all, even the best lobbyists can’t always make the case as well as the people they represent, so sometimes those crucial introductions are even more important than the actual lobbying.

So why wouldn’t we require these paid matchmakers to register as lobbyists and abide by the same rules?

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In South Carolina, a lobbyist is defined as anyone who is paid for “promoting or opposing” government actions “through direct communication with public officials or public employees.” Lobbyists have to register with the State Ethics Commission and report regularly on who they’re working for, the legislation or other government actions they’re trying to influence and the amount of money they spend doing that. They’re also prohibited from making campaign contributions, and they can’t buy anything for legislators — not even a cup of coffee.

The twin purposes of the law are to prevent lobbyists from using money to make their points and to force special interests to reveal how much they’re spending to influence our Legislature.

The law seemed strong when it was passed three decades ago, but we’ve learned since then that a lot of people do work that quacks like a lobbyist but doesn’t meet the technical definition. Lawyers, for instance, meet with legislators to consult on how to draft legislation, or to “explain” their work; advertising and public relations specialists and economists and engineers and other professionals provide their own explanations. But because they’re paid to write bills or design campaigns or conduct studies, they don’t have to register. And now Mr. Hardee’s federal trial has brought to light another lobbying activity that isn’t covered by the lobbying law.

Updating the lobbying law to include all the people who are acting as legislative go-betweens and all the spending that’s being done to influence the Legislature joins a long list of reforms lawmakers need to make to the State Ethics Act. But it’s a pretty straightforward one, and there’s no good reason lawmakers can’t handle that in the coming session.

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