Sending former state Rep. Jim Harrison to prison for using his elected office for personal gain sends a strong message to other lawmakers whose influence might be bought and should spur the Legislature to put more teeth in existing ethics laws.
The 67-year-old Columbia Republican’s self-dealing took place over 13 years during which he chaired the powerful House Judiciary Committee. He is expected to serve about 4 ½ months of an 18-month sentence for illegally accepting more than $900,000 from the political consulting firm Richard Quinn & Associates while helping its corporate clients pass legislation.
The Quinn firm was at the center of special prosecutor David Pascoe’s four-year corruption probe, which netted five other current or former lawmakers who avoided potential prison time by accepting plea deals, including Rep. Rick Quinn, son of Richard Quinn.
Unfortunately, influence peddling is endemic to politics, and ethics laws need to constantly evolve to keep pace. The Legislature, however, passed no ethics reforms last year despite a glut of proposals.
Giving the State Ethics Commission access to lawmakers’ annual tax returns and campaign accounts, and requiring lawmakers to disclose the amounts and sources of their income, would be a significant step forward. That kind of transparency would help unmask the type of shadowy connections brought to light during Mr. Pascoe’s investigation.
Further defining what constitutes a lobbyist and what distinguishes one from a consultant would also help. To help take “dark money” out of state politics, entities seeking to influence legislation could be compelled to identify their donors.
Rep. Gary Clary, R-Clemson, recently told The Post and Courier he plans to reintroduce an ethics reform bill in January.
“The people that I talk to are fed up,” the former circuit judge said. “They expect better and they’re demanding better.”
Former law professor John Crangle, who has studied Statehouse ethics for years and just ran unsuccessfully for a Columbia-area House seat, said he favors requiring lawmakers to disclose tax returns. That would force them to disclose income from outside interests or face possible tax charges.
Before the Legislature reconvenes in January, Gov. Henry McMaster said he would propose opening lawmakers’ emails to Freedom of Information Act requests, requiring more special interests to register as lobbyists and further empowering the Ethics Commission.
Lawmakers also have several leftover ethics bills from last year that could be revived in the new two-year session.
Changes to ethics laws made in 2016 required legislators to disclose their sources and types of income and that of their immediate family members. But the law fell short by not requiring lawmakers, many of whom run law firms and other businesses, to disclose who their business clients are.
That loophole allowed former Rep. Jim Merrill, who was charged in the probe and resigned, to avoid publicly identifying clients of his communications and marketing firm, which included several special interests.
Another 2016 law enabled the newly independent Ethics Commission to investigate allegations against lawmakers. Previously, they investigated themselves, part of the reason the Center for Public Integrity gave South Carolina a D-minus on its 2015 ethics report card.
Certainly, there is plenty of room for improvement and plenty of good ideas. What has been lacking is the political will to make ethics reform a priority. Seeing a fellow lawmaker go to jail should provide the necessary motivation.