It can be a struggle to remain optimistic these days if you support government accountability.
Despite all the talk about reforms, and several bills aimed at strengthening ethics laws, a host of scandals and questionable behavior by public officials has many wondering if anything will really change.
Questions arose last week about the hefty spending in 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson’s office. Among the unusual items were $925 for limousine service; 25 pairs of gold cufflinks embossed with the 5th Circuit seal; a feast for 70 guests at the Carolina Cup horse races; elaborate Christmas parties; and pricey lodging at fine hotels, including one in the Galapagos Islands.
It is reasonable to question what, if anything, these expenditures have to do with being a public prosecutor. And Mr. Johnson has yet to give a full explanation, other than to say his office did nothing wrong.
Attorney General Alan Wilson has taken the right course in asking the State Law Enforcement Division to review the matter.
More questions were raised Sunday when The Post and Courier reported that Mr. Johnson’s office hired his Phoenix-based brother to DJ at office Christmas parties. That could run afoul of state ethics laws that prohibit public officials from using their office to obtain an economic benefit for a family member.
“If you look at the language of the ethics commission rules of conduct, it looks to me to be improper,” John Freeman, a professor of law emeritus at the University of South Carolina, told the newspaper. “And I’d want an explanation.”
Those reports also point to a need for better internal accountability on spending. This is especially true in offices in which there are multiple revenue sources. Someone tasked with vetting expenditures would recognize the problems with this kind of spending and with money spent on community events that appear similar to campaign spending.
The issues underscore the need for transparency in the expenditure of public funds. The Legislature is considering numerous measures to do just that with bills that address deficiencies in ethics laws governing state lawmakers, lobbyists and public employees.
However, there hasn’t been much progress on ethics legislation due to the focus on the nuclear plant debacle. It would be a shame to allow ethics reform to quietly slip away. That’s how the troubling status quo stays in place.
Even with all the frustrations, citizens shouldn’t give up on ethics reforms.
Ultimately, it may be up to the voters of Richland and Kershaw counties to speak to Mr. Johnson’s spending, and his failure to address it in the wake of news accounts. The ballot box is still a sure tool for holding public officials accountable.