The Ethics Reform That Isn’t
CLEARLY, LAWMAKERS HAD GOOD REASONS TO KEEP H.3945 SECRET
The talk this week has been mainly about the ill-named ethics reform bill being debated in the South Carolina House. It’s ill-named because, despite a strong provision requiring income disclosure, the bill actually weakens ethics laws in several areas.
The most obvious problem with it, however, was the manner in which it sailed through the subcommittee and committee process. The bill was – apparently deliberately – kept from public scrutiny by withholding its content from online viewers. Apparently some members of the committee didn’t even know what was in the bill (a point that didn’t stop one legislative leader from blasting the bill’s critics for – strangely enough – not knowing what was in it).
Leaving aside the secrecy with which the bill has progressed so far, however, it contains several new provisions that could fairly be called outrageous.
It decriminalizes major portions of the law code on ethics. Instead of potential prison time and a maximum fine of $5,000 for violations under Chapter 13, it substitutes lower fines (between $200 and $2,500) and no prison time. Essentially, lawmakers would be free to break ethics laws as long as they were willing to pay the (decreased) fines.
Specifically, what would no longer be a crime under H.3945?
Converting campaign funds to personal use. Elected officials could now legally use their campaign accounts as slush funds, opening the door to special interests and bribery. Even elected officials who go unopposed in their reelection campaign would likely raise thousands of dollars since they could now use the money for any purpose.
Using an office for personal gain. Elected officials already have greater access to state contracts and business opportunities by virtue of their close proximity to the laws governing such matters. If the bill were to pass in its present form, it wouldn’t be a crime to explicitly solicit business from your position as an elected official.
Violation of nepotism laws. Currently state law doesn’t allow elected officials to directly appoint family members to positions they directly supervise. That doesn’t mean they don’t do it, but the law forbids it. This bill would legalize the practice.
Citizens required to register as lobbyists
If you’re a citizen or the representative of any grassroots organization, and you want to testify in front of a legislative committee or subcommittee, you will now have to register with the State Ethics Commission as a lobbyist and pay a $200 registration fee. Current law allows such individuals to present material and/or testimony at legislative subcommittee hearings without being considered a lobbyist, but that would no longer be the case if this bill passed in its present form.
A provision in this section would also make independent citizens (for instance, business owners) to register as lobbyists if they wanted to give input at a public hearing on a local ordinance or initiative.
Legislative appointees would dominate new ethics commission
The bill abolishes House and Senate Ethics Committees – something SCPC and other organizations have advocated for years. Any arrangement in which ethics violations are adjudicated by the friends, allies, and peers of the accused – at least partly in secret – violates the principle of the rule of law.
But instead of transferring the committees’ powers to the Ethics Commission, the bill abolishes the Commission, too, and replaces it with another entity: the Commission on Ethics Enforcement and Disclosure. The reason for that seems clear: The Ethics Commission is made up of nine commissioners appointed by the governor, with advice and consent of the legislature. The new entity would be governed by a 12-member commission; four members would be appointed by the governor, four by the Senate, and four by the House. The new Commission would therefore be dominated by the legislature’s interests (outnumbering gubernatorial appointees eight to four) – meaning, in effect, that legislative self-policing would continue, with the difference that legislators themselves wouldn’t have to take the political risk of going easy on their colleagues.
Recusal requirement … deleted?
Current law stipulates that, if a lawmaker votes on a state entity’s annual appropriation, he or she is barred from receiving a state contract with that agency. Yet the current House bill would eliminate this provision. Lawmakers would no longer have to recuse themselves from votes pertaining to state agencies’ appropriations when they or their businesses have ongoing contracts with those agencies.
The bill undoubtedly has some strong provisions. Yet it’s so loaded with language that weakens ethics laws and affords state lawmakers greater ethical latitude, it no longer deserves the title “ethics reform bill.”