Ethics Reform: Some Re-Gifting Ideas


A FEW IDEAS WORTH KEEPING FOR NEXT YEAR . . .

The 2013 legislative session will begin in January, and many lawmakers and pundits have predicted that this will be the year of “ethics reform.” We don’t know what “ethics reform” will mean yet – a genuine overhaul of Columbia’s culture of secret deal-making, cronyism, and self-enrichment, or a few bill signing ceremonies and press releases – but there are plenty of ideas left over from the 2012 session. Some are good, some are improvable, some are just awful, but all died in committee or subcommittee. Keeping in the spirit of gift-giving, here are a few bills lawmakers should consider re-gifting in 2013.

S.71 (sponsored by Sen. Thomas) would have required all public officials and their spouses to include statements of economic interests for all sources of income over $200. The dollar amount wouldn’t be necessary, just the source, but it would include both public and private income. Calling this reform “long overdue” doesn’t quite convey the reality here; it should have been passed thirty years ago.

S.561 (sponsored by Sen. Peeler and former Sen. Rose) would have required public officials to disclose income from any government source, including the federal government; any gifts or services from lobbyists over $25 in a day or $200 in a year; any goods or services from a vendor contracting with the state over $25 in a day or $200 in a year; and any contractual employment or relationship the public official has with a state board or commission member. This bill seems reasonable as far as it goes, although it would be simpler and clearer if lawmakers simply required disclosure of all income sources, public and private.

S.306 (sponsored by former Senator Rose) would have reduced the State Ethics Commission from nine to eight members, only four of which would now be appointed by the governor (as opposed to all), two by the President Pro Tem of the Senate and two by the Speaker of the House. It may sound at first like another legislative power-grab, but here’s the trade-off: The Ethics Commission would have power to investigate members of the General Assembly and their staff. In short: an end to legislative self-policing.

(A variety of other bills would have accomplished largely the same end with slight variation of detail; see particularly H.4421 and S.1373H.4633, on the other hand, is a far more straightforward bill – one page – it simply transfers authority on ethics enforcement from the legislative committees to the Commission.)

S. 1428 (sponsored by Sens. Laurie, Hutto, Sheheen, and Coleman) would have allowed records relating to an ethics investigation to be public once probable cause of a violation was found, and would have made ethics hearings subject to FOIA requests. These would be genuine, if incremental, improvements. (The bill reminds us, too, that ordinarily lawmakers are not subject to FOIA requests – an outrageous exemption that would have been deleted by H.3235 if that bill hadn’t been defeated in the Senate.)

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Then there are a few gifts that shouldn’t be re-gifted. They should be put away quietly, along with that fuchsia sweater and the gaudy handbag.

S.116 (sponsored by Sen. Sheheen) would have created mandatory training programs for all local and statewide public officials. These would be run by the State Ethics Commission. The underlying assumption here seems to be that public officials do unethical things because they don’t know the law. We would suggest the opposite: They do them precisely because they know how weak our ethics laws are, and how far they can push them.

S.308 (also sponsored by former Sen. Rose) would allow the legislative ethics committees to impose fines of up to $2,000 and to require the forfeiture of gifts, receipts, or profits obtained in violation of the law. You don’t need us to point out that one of the chief reasons ethics is even a topic of discussion is because legislators presently have the power to adjudicate their colleagues’ violations. The ethics committees deserve to be abolished, not given more power.

S. 1338 (sponsored by Sen. Leatherman and former Sen. Rose) would have barred public officials from serving in any other public office until he or she has paid all fines owed to the State Ethics Commission. The problem of unpaid Ethics Commission fines is a real one – there is currently a $2.2 million “debtors list” – but this bill wouldn’t apply to all public officials. It would exempt state lawmakers (who don’t fall under the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction) and constitutional officers (the bill would apply only to “public offices whose qualifications are not defined in the constitution”). The bill says, in effect: Everyone should be required to zero out their tab with the Ethics Commission except us.

H.4521 (sponsored by former Rep. Ryan) would have allowed the governor to remove from office any public official who had acquired fines over $1,000 with the State Ethics Commission delinquent for more than a year. Any public official, that is, other than lawmakers. Again, non-payment of fines is an issue, but lawmakers, who are only fined by their own ethics committees – and who have the privilege of keeping their delinquency secret – should clean up their own acts before pointing the finger elsewhere.

Of course, if lawmakers want to get really serious about ethics reform, they don’t need to appoint any more study committees or blue-ribbon panels or reform commissions, as if ethics reform were a highly technical matter requiring scientific expertise. No: all they need to do is pass these eight reforms and they’ll deserve plenty pf credit for reforming our ethics laws.

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