Project Conflict Watch: The SEI Response
WHY STATEMENTS OF ECONOMIC INTERESTS DON’T MATTER
Earlier this year, the Policy Council launched Project Conflict Watch, an initiative asking state elected officials to disclose their sources of private income voluntarily. Many have done so, including three of the state’s nine constitutional officers. Others have yet to do so.
A few have responded by saying they would not participate in the initiative, and explaining why. The most popular reason given for not volunteering is some variation of this response, from a state lawmaker: “I already make this available on my Statement of Economic Interests.” Of course, if that’s true – and we assume it is – it’s hard to see why the official would refuse to fill out the very brief and straightforward SCPC form. Since there is not a requirement to disclose private income on the SEI, many elected officials who have given us this response have agreed to complete our disclosure form to give their constituents more access to the information they have requested through Project Conflict Watch.
In any case, Gov. Nikki Haley’s office has made this response to a number of constituents who’ve asked her to disclose her private income sources. “Governor Haley voluntarily discloses all sources of her income on her annual Statement of Economic Interests Form,” the governor’s chief legal counsel, Swati Patel, has written in several email responses forwarded to SCPC staff. Ms. Patel goes on: “[The governor] also makes her personal tax return available to the media every year.” Making this information available to the media is not the same as making the information available to the constituents an eleceted official represents.
Of course, the governor is under no legal obligation to disclose her non-governmental income sources via SCPC’s Project Conflict Watch. Still, it’s worth pointing out that the requirements for SEIs are very different from what would be required under any genuine income source disclosure law. On their SEIs, elected officials are “required” to disclose any business in which they own at least 5 percent of a company’s outstanding stock, if the stock’s total value exceeds $100,000. It does not ask for income made from property ownership. We’ve placed “required” in quotation marks because, as has been repeatedly shown by The Nerve, state lawmakers frequently ignore even this lenient obligation. Recently disgraced Senator Robert Ford, for instance, only listed his annual salary, subsistence and per diem benefits, and retirement.
For her part, Gov. Haley has listed only one source of private income on her SEI: income from Penguin USA, the publisher of Can’t Is Not an Option. The SEI form would not require her to disclose either public or private income sources from her spouse. Effectively, then, the SEI form is based on the honor system: public officials can decide what to put on it or withhold from it (in fact, some members of the General Assembly put nothing on it).
Gov. Haley’s own SEI illustrates the point. Despite Ms. Patel’s contention that the governor “voluntarily discloses all sources of her income on her annual Statement of Economic Interests Form,” the tax returns she makes available to the news media make it clear that this is not the case. SCPC’s Conflict Watch form—based on the model for private income disclosure used by U.S. Congress—by contrast, asks for investment and spousal income sources.
The governor seems to be aware of the SEI’s weakness. Ms. Patel points out in her response that the governor’s own Commission on Ethics Reform proposed far more stringent laws on income disclosure than those presently on the books in South Carolina. “This report,” writes Ms. Patel, “proposed to expand income disclosures for the filer, the filer’s immediate family, and the business with which the filer is associated, which would include the source of all private income, the amount and source of all government income, and the amount and source of all private income received from a lobbyist’s principal, a government-regulated entity, or a government contract.”
Given the Governor’s support of the Commission’s reccomendations, her participation in Project Conflict Watch should be a natural next step as it requests the same information as was reccomended. We’re disappointed that the letter does not state that the Governor will participate in Project Conflict Watch.
Our hope is that the Governor and other elected officials that have yet to respond to their constituent’s request consider that SCPCs Project Conflict Watch is intended to restore the public’s trust in their government and allow them to determine whether these officials are representing their own interests over those of their constituents.