South Carolina’s Ethics Commission has always been the redheaded stepchild of state government: It's an agency the Legislature feels obligated to have but doesn’t really want doing its job too well.
And yes, we realize that some — perhaps even most — legislators care deeply about government ethics. But enough feel just the opposite to ensure that the agency has never had the investigative or enforcement tools or staff that it needs to provide an effective deterrent to self-dealing.
So we welcome Gov. Henry McMaster’s effort to change that.
Mr. McMaster proposes adding $1.7 million to the agency’s budget to hire more investigators. That doesn’t sound like a lot in a year when lawmakers have nearly $1 billion in additional recurring revenue to cover inflation and pay for new services and employees, but it would double the annual state funding for the agency. (The commission receives another $500,000 in fines and lobbyist registration fees.)
The agency has a huge paperwork mandate: It’s tasked with keeping tabs on annual economic interest reports from nearly every elected and appointed official in the state, and it compiles campaign reports at least four times a year from most every state and local candidate. But only four of its 18 employees are investigators. If lawmakers approve this proposal — and they should — they need to ensure that the additional money goes entirely to hiring more investigators, something that’s implied but not directly required by Mr. McMaster’s proposal.
Additionally, the governor proposes to nearly triple the budget of the office of inspector general — a newer addition to our state’s good-government arsenal but also one that most legislators were never that excited about — adding $1.5 million to its $875,000 budget. That agency doesn’t have the same record-keeping demands, so its eight employees are able to spend almost all of their time on investigations. The idea of three times as many investigators should be daunting to government officials who use their positions to benefit themselves at the expense of the public.
Simultaneously, the governor wants to expand the mission of both agencies, extending the state’s lobbying law to cover people who lobby local governments and giving the inspector general authority to investigate claims of waste, fraud and abuse by school districts as well as other state and local governments, not just state agencies.
Both expansions are warranted and overdue — something The Post and Courier’s Uncovered investigative series reminded us of over the past year, as it exposed case after case of abusive spending practices at the local level, along with too-cozy relationships between those who were paid to influence local decisions and those making the decisions.
But expanding the agencies’ jurisdiction will reduce the impact of the additional funding. That might not be a problem for the inspector general, which isn’t a primary enforcement agency but was envisioned to uncover problems that were being overlooked by enforcement agencies. The Ethics Commission, on the other hand, is charged with enforcing the state’s ethics and campaign finance laws, and it has nowhere near the staff it needs to do more than cursory reviews in most cases.
Beyond that, the Ethics Commission needs more than just additional staff to do its job well. It also needs an attitude adjustment that might be delivered through clearer authority and enforcement tools and might require changes in personnel.
Consider the allegations in a federal lawsuit that was filed last year challenging the state’s ethics gag law.
In motions filed last month, Senate President Tom Alexander and House Speaker Jay Lucas argued that the gag law doesn’t actually prevent people from talking about their concerns regarding unethical behavior just because they’ve filed an official ethics complaint, as the anonymous plaintiff alleges. We think the lawmakers are correct, but the plaintiff argues that the Ethics Commission hasn’t contested his understanding of the law.
Indeed, the commission’s warnings to people who file ethics complaints are written in such a way that most people would not recognize that all they are prohibited from discussing is the existence and status of their ethics complaint — not the underlying misconduct behind it. And it’s hard to see what such language accomplishes but to deter complaints, and to make it more difficult for all of us to tell whether the commission is dismissing complaints appropriately or sweeping serious violations under the rug.
A federal court will eventually agree or disagree with our legislative leaders about what the gag rule means, but when lawmakers discover that a state agency thinks a law means something different from what the Legislature thinks it means, it’s time to change the law. That should happen with the gag law, which needs to be rewritten to clarify its extremely limited scope — and that nothing about it prevents anyone from talking about what they believe to be violations of the state ethics act.
Meantime, legislators need to make it clear that — regardless of whether this interpretation and the larger problem of the commission’s less-than-aggressive approach to investigating and enforcing the law reflect a too-lax approach to the job or simply frustration — they expect a more aggressive approach. And they need to ensure that approach will be realized, not only with more staff but also with new enforcement tools, from mandatory random audits to tougher penalties for violators. After all, the toughest looking ethics law in the country does no good if officials know they’re going to get only a slap on the wrist for violating it.