A lot has happened in South Carolina since the State Integrity Investigation ranked our state among the most at risk for corruption. In March I wrote about this report, some efforts that had been made, and some bills that I had filed to improve our ethics laws. Here is an update.
H.3445, a bill that I co-sponsored, passed. This bill opened the House Ethics Committee process by adding to the House Rules the duties and procedures of the committee, and most importantly, making it clear that the complaint, response, and any public hearing documents must be made public once there is a finding of probable cause.
This new law was immediately put into practice as the House Ethics Committee unanimously voted to find probable cause in the Matter of Nikki Haley. However, the Committee voted to dismiss the matter in the next motion. I voted against that motion because I believed that the integrity of the process required an open hearing.
The public hearing that eventually ensued demonstrated some of the gaps between the actual law and the public’s expectation of what should be done. For example, should a member of the legislature be required to report income from an employer who has contracts with the state? In my opinion there should be requirements to disclose. After all, it is the General Assembly that appropriates the funding that pays for all state contracts. While there may be no wrongdoing, the public deserves to know when a state or local appropriation benefits an elected official or his or her employer.
H. 3235 was a bill adopted by the House, but did not pass in the Senate. This is a bill that dealt with access to public records. It was amended in the House Judiciary Committee to include the elimination of the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) exemption for the General Assembly. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, I voted in favor of this amendment.
Late in the session, the state was consumed by the ballot debacle in which hundreds of candidates were thrown off the ballot by the courts for incorrectly filing their Statement of Economic Interest forms. While elections are not ethics, this situation certainly did nothing to enhance the public’s trust in government. Efforts were made to provide relief, but, in addition to the difficulty of passing retroactive laws, the quickly approaching primary date and the requirement for U.S. Justice Department pre-clearance quelled these attempts.
Several changes are needed to correct what occurred. The law needs to make clear that a confirmation of filing one’s SEI online is acceptable and can be turned in along with the Statement of Candidacy. Online filing is good, because candidates’ information is easily accessible to the public. Everyone should have the same deadline to file the SEI, whether one is currently in office or not. Filing should take place at the local elections office with staff who is trained and who can provide a consistent application of the law. With this partnership, parties should have fewer controversies certifying candidates.
In addition to strengthening ethics laws, there has to be a better way of enforcing them. Fines alone are not effective. All over South Carolina there are elected officials and others required to file ethics reports who have amassed significant fines for campaign financial disclosure reporting violations. These fines range from $14 to more than $190,000. The total amount owed to the State Ethics Commission for these fines is more than $2 million. These debtors -- who are school board members, county and city council members, former candidates, local parties, and lobbyists and lobbyist principals -- are listed on the State Ethics Commission website.
Reporting and disclosure is important because it helps the electorate determine whether its elected officials are acting out of self-interest or in the interests of the public. The House Ethics Committee, the Senate Ethics Committee, the Attorney General’s Office, and the State Ethics Commission are actively engaged in a working committee to reform and modernize the state’s ethics laws. Significant changes that will improve transparency and integrity, and most importantly, earn greater trust from the public are overdue.