Testimony before Commission on Ethics Reform
LANDESS ASKS GOVERNOR’S COMMISSION ON ETHICS REFORM TO CONSIDER DEPTH OF PROBLEM[Note: the following is testimony by SCPC President Ashley Landess before Gov. Nikki Haley’s Commission on Ethics Reform, on Tuesday, January 22, 2013. Video available here.]
Thank you for this second opportunity to speak to you today. We at the SCPC believe this committee is taking seriously its charge to recommend substantive ethics reform, and we’ve provided to you years of research boiled down to eight recommendations that we believe would go a long way toward making South Carolina’s government the least corruptible, most accountable in the country. And we hope to make that larger goal one shared across the state. But we are long way from there today, and that’s why we’re all here.
We have some new information to share, as well as a new understanding about what it will mean to challenge the state’s most powerful politicians in the very system we’re all working to change. Before I proceed, I’d like to say two things: First, I’m here to implore you to consider not just part but all of the agenda we’ve given you, including the government restructuring that would create the separation of powers and checks and balances that have never really existed in our state. I understand that separating powers may seem beyond the scope of your charge, but we have no doubt that structure is the reason we have to hold these hearings. Second, I ask you to please consider what I say not as a judgment of one politician, but rather from the perspective of citizens who increasingly distrust everyone they elect. I don’t expect you to consider the merits of our concerns about one of our state’s most powerful leaders, but I hope you will take a broader look at the system in which SC politicians’ power is unparalleled and unchecked.
When news stories reported that our Speaker had reimbursed himself hundreds of thousands of dollars from his campaign account, we were shocked. Over several days we learned that much of that money went to pay for his private plane travel. We waited for what we assumed would be an investigation, especially after the Speaker conceded he didn’t have some of the documentation the law required him to keep.
After bringing together a number of diverse South Carolina organizations to request some answers – and still receiving none – we began to explore the possibility of filing a complaint ourselves. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve understood what it would practically mean, not just for us to challenge this Speaker, but for any citizen to challenge any powerful politician.
Consider that we have no choice but to file with House Ethics Committee. It has always disturbed us that the legislature polices itself, and that conflicts cannot help but exist. But in the case of the Speaker, conflicts exist to the greatest degree possible. The Speaker is the ultimate authority over the whole staff of the House and would authorize any investigator hired to explore a complaint. The Committee’s findings are presented to the Speaker. We see no process for his recusal should he himself be the subject of a complaint.
What is especially disturbing is that this particular House Ethics Committee re-formed last month and expanded from the six members required by the statute to ten members. They changed the makeup of the committee through a House rule, despite language in the statute that clearly states no changes may be made that are in conflict with the Constitution or the statute.
We have hit upon the most extreme example of conflict of interest with regard to legislative ethics committees, and it isn’t theoretical. It is in front of us right now.
The Committee has the power to subpoena witnesses, and if we felt that the Committee was abusing its powers we would have no choice but to argue that before a judge. That hypothetical scenario presents another conflict, this one even more dangerous. Anyone challenging this Speaker could well end up in front a judge who is on the bench because the Speaker’s brother sits on the panel that chose him or her. And what’s most alarming is that the Speaker’s brother sits on the Judicial Merit Selection Commission in what seems a clear violation of the state law regarding appointment of family members. Judicial independence is necessary not just to check corruption but to control tyranny and preserve democracy. If we can’t trust that judges will deal as impartially with politicians as they will with us, we can trust nothing.
One last example appears to be a serious matter of using public office for personal gain that creates multiple potential conflicts of interest with broad public policy ramifications.
We have documents [see here] that include emails between state regulatory officials who express concern that the Speaker is using his influence to get certain permits for his business. At least one official has serious concerns about the Speaker’s business operating in the manner outlined. There is a note from the Speaker to a licensing board on his official letterhead in which he requests “urgent attention” to the matter of obtaining a permit for his company. Another letter on his personal letterhead to hospitals solicits business, while still another email reveals that the Speaker had multiple meetings with the General Counsel of a regulatory agency and subsequently received a clarifying letter favorable to his company.
We want assurances that there were no conflicts of interest and that the Speaker did not use his position for personal gain. Citizens deserve those assurances from every elected official. That’s why so many of us have joined together to call for income source disclosure, for full transparency in incentive deals and full compliance at every level of government with FOIA.
No one should have to go through such an arduous process as this just to get answers from a politician. Unfortunately, that is how our state currently operates. We have valid concerns that our state’s most powerful politician has set himself above the law, and we are alarmed that our system seems designed to protect him – and all politicians – with far too little regard for the public.