Enlightened Palate dinner (copy)

SC law places no limits on the amount of money most businesses can spend wining and dining school board members and local officials.

Technically, the S.C. ethics law applies to cities, counties and schools as well as state government. But in one important way, it doesn’t.

If you want to lobby the Legislature, you have to register with the State Ethics Commission and follow a long list of rules that essentially boil down to: Don’t spend any money on a legislator or other government official. Not a dime. Not even a cheap cup of coffee. (The law was written back when there was such a thing.) And the companies and organizations that hire you can spend only strictly limited amounts of money on state officials, and only under strict restrictions.

If a state lobbyist wants to lobby a city or county council or a school board, the same rules apply. But anyone else who wants to do that can just show up and lobby. No forms to fill out. You and your employers are free to make campaign donations and wine and dine the officials who you’re trying to convince.

And as Columbia’s State newspaper reported recently, the result can be the same sort of too-cozy relationships that prompted state legislators to pass those lobbying restrictions three decades ago.

The newspaper reviewed annual statements of economic interest and construction contracts for the seven Richland and Lexington county districts and found that school board members and top school officials had accepted more than $32,000 in gifts between 2012 and 2018 from construction and architectural companies and law firms: boxes of “appreciation pecans,” chocolates and popcorn, lunches and dinners that cost up to $75, sports tickets, baked hams, rounds of golf.

School officials defended the meals as a way to help them bond with one another and get to know contractors who could work with the district. But the companies that spent the most were most consistently awarded contracts for multimillion-dollar projects

And some of the defenses actually highlighted the very reason legislators eliminated the socializing and gift-giving that used to be routine at the Statehouse.

For instance, one school board member said that the head of an architectural company gave her an $80 ticket to a Clemson University football game in 2017 after she told friends she needed one to attend the game with her husband and children: “That’s Todd being a friend, saying, ‘I know you need a ticket. Here’s a ticket.’” The company spent the most on gifts to district officials during the period review — and won the most contracts.

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The 1991 federal corruption sting that ensnared a tenth of the Legislature grew out of too-cozy relationships between legislators and lobbyists — relationships that were fueled by lunches, dinners, nights out drinking, vacations and generous campaign donations, all paid for by lobbyists. The Legislature made it illegal to convert campaign funds to personal use and prohibited lobbyists from giving campaign donations and gifts to legislators in an effort to chill those relationships.

We can’t say for sure that the gift-giving is getting out of hand in other communities without reviewing thousands of ethics reports, but there’s no reason to think the spending would be limited to the Midlands.

It made sense for the Legislature to focus its early ethics efforts on the Statehouse, because we knew there was a culture of corruption there. But the same conditions that created that culture clearly are present at the local level. It’s time for lawmakers to require people who are paid to influence local officials and school board members — and their employers — to register as lobbyists and abide by the same rules as their state-level counterparts.