You want to know whether a law is serious or just a feel-good sort of thing? Check out the enforcement mechanism. As a backstop, check the compliance, but especially if it’s a civil rather than a criminal violation, you’ll usually learn all you need to know from the mechanism:
John Doe breaks the law. The punishment is a $1,000 fine. What happens if he refuses to pay the fine? Are his wages garnished, in a significant way? Can he be sent to jail? Or punished in some other way for refusing to comply with his punishment?
If not, nobody’s serious about that law.
Which brings us to South Carolina’s ethics law. As The Post and Courier’s Avery Wilks and Joseph Cranney report in today’s latest installment of our Uncovered investigative series, 370 current and former state and local politicians owe the State Ethics Commission $2.9 million in fines for failing to file ethics or campaign disclosure reports on time, or at all, or for accepting illegal campaign donations or illegally using their position for personal gain.
Here’s the good news. Most officials comply with the law. And of the 4,400 people the Ethics Commission had to contact over the past four years for not filing ethics or campaign finance reports on time, all but 131 have come into compliance.
More good news: Most of the deadbeats are people who have left public office or who never got elected to begin with.
Here’s the bad news: Among the deadbeats are more than 50 people who currently serve in office: mayors, county council members, school board members, auditors, a former legislator now serving in Congress and even some current state legislators. Among them, they owe more than $250,000 in unpaid fines.
Most of them had already violated the law and refused to pay their fines the most recent time they were elected. Which is central to how we can fix this problem, but hold that thought a moment.
Their excuses are predictable — it's somebody else's fault; nobody warned me; it's not fair; it's just paperwork and red tape — and ridiculous. But one deserves special attention.
There are two ways to ensure that public officials serve the public instead of themselves: You can think of all the potential conflicts of interest and outlaw them all, or you can require them to report their income, gifts and campaign donations and let voters decide. South Carolina’s law is heavy on the latter, which means not completing all that "paperwork" is a serious offense — in some ways just as serious as stealing from the public.
The State Ethics Commission has two tools for making deadbeats pay up: It can turn their cases over to the Department of Revenue to garnish wages and tax refunds. Or, in the case of people who still haven’t filed their reports (as opposed to those who just haven’t paid off the fines that mounted until they finally did file the reports), it can ask a magistrate to send them to jail for 30 days to a year.
We’re not aware of anyone trying the latter. The commission does use garnishment, but the Revenue Department won’t take much money at a time, and it doesn’t work for people who don’t have jobs or refunds — typically retired people. Indeed, there’s no good way to get money out of people who don’t have it, and throwing people in jail who never held office or who left office decades ago isn’t a great use of tax money.
Besides, our goal shouldn’t be to collect ethics fines. It should be to show politicians there are real consequences for violating the law — so they won’t violate the law. And there’s a really easy and obvious way to do that: Prohibit anyone with outstanding ethics fines from running for office. Which the Legislature needs to do.
Reformers have been filing bills for years to keep candidates off the ballot who have outstanding ethics fines, and their colleagues in the Legislature have ignored them. In so doing, they make it clear that they don’t care whether people obey the ethics law. Which means it’s not a serious law.