Show us the Money
The ethics of politics
BY BRETT BURSEY
In the state's more than 5,000 elections last year, every candidate was expected to play by the rules and report campaign contributions to the State Ethics Commission.
You would expect it to be the Ethics Commission's job to hold politicians and candidates to some standard of conduct. You would be wrong. The Commission isn't responsible for insuring that the rules are followed or that campaign contributions fall within legal limits. It simply makes sure the paperwork is filed. With 17,501 registrations, reports and disclosures submitted last year, the office's staff of nine functions would be more accurately described as file clerks than ethics cops.
The 1991 Ethics Reform Act, put into place after the federal Lost Trust scam embarrassed the legislature, is the rule book. The Act placed limits on the amount of campaign contributions ($3,500 per election cycle for statewide races and $1,000 in House and Senate races) and prohibited lobbyists from making contributions.
The Act also insured that the commission has no authority over the House or Senate. The legislative bodies each have their own ethics committees comprised of their own members.
Candy Waites (former D-Richland) cosponsored the House ethics bill. "In order to remove the intimidation factor and to prevent the fox from guarding the hen house, we wanted to take the authority to investigate ourselves away from the legislature and give it to the State Ethics Commission," she said. The Senate wouldn't go along, though, and the final version of the Ethics Reform Act prevents the Ethics Commission from investigating legislators.
Ethics Commission Executive Director Gary Baker is by all accounts a decent man who knows that he can't do his job well and keep it. "They don't want us to become powerful, they don't want us knocking on people's doors," Baker said referring to the politicians who approve his budget.
For the past three years, Baker's request for additional funding -- $45,000 this year -- to hire a second investigator was vetoed by the governor.
The Commission received 38 complaints last year, and has a backlog of 40 cases. Baker says that there is about a year's wait before the agency's single investigator can manage to process a new complaint.
The level of computer technology at the Commission is less than you would find at most junior high school computer labs. "We can't compel electronic filing," Baker said, "and we don't have the staff or money to enter all the paper filings into the computer."
Baker acknowledges that "having the campaign financial information on computer would make it much easier to check, but they (the politicians being checked on) may not want that. It's not in everybodys' best interest."
Barring help from the politicians he is supposed to monitor, Baker has taken the initiative to get the University to contribute resources. "We are working with the Advanced Solutions Group in the USC Physics Department to create an on-line filing system," he said.
Baker hopes he can get candidates for statewide offices to voluntarily file electronically.
Statewide candidates reported $19 million in contributions for the 1994 election. Gov. David Beasley's contributions and expenditures of $3.5 million were filed on a stack of paper over two feet tall that were keyed into the Commission's computer.
A review of the governor's campaign finance reports since the general election in 1994 revealed five contributions that were above the maximum allowable individual donation of $3,500. A check of two of those contributions found that those recorded from Roger Milliken and W.W. Johnson were also from their spouses and, accordingly, were within limits.
Although the Commission staff enters contributions to statewide races into their computer data base, a programming flaw doesn't calculate a running total. None of the contributions to the Beasley campaign showed on the printout as being over the allowable $3,500.
Even after the contributions have been entered into the computer, then, they must be added by hand.
W.J. Durham's contributions to the governor total $6,500. That same name appears on contributions sent from a street address and a Post Office box from Anderson.
The Pee Dee State Bank is down for an illegal $4,000, and the Lamar Hospital is in for another $4,000.
Problem is, there is no hospital in Lamar. No corporation or business is listed with the Secretary of State or the Attorney General's Office under the name of the Lamar Hospital.
Anonymous contributions are prohibited, and must be turned over to the Children's Trust Fund within seven days of receipt.
Since the Commission generally doesn't investigate violations without a specific complaint, POINT filed a complaint with the agency on Oct. 8. Since the Governor's Office has denied the Commission funds for an additional investigator, it may be a while before we get the results on what appears to be a violation of the Ethics Reform Act. This is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $5,000 and or a year in jail.
If an investigation concludes that there is probable cause to believe a violation of the Ethics Reform Act occurred, a panel of three commissioners will hold a hearing. The commissioners, all nine appointed by the governor, have the authority to drop the complaint by allowing "the respondent... to correct the alleged violation."
Most of the Commission's investigations deal with misuse of public funds in city and county agencies. In the rare case when the Commission can't work out a deal with the offending politician, the matter is referred to the Attorney General for prosecution.
The Ethics Reform Act hides complaints from public view. Unlike allegations the rest of us face in civil or criminal proceedings, ethics complaints against politicians "must remain confidential until final disposition of a matter... " The complaint, the investigation, all documentation and even the hearing are held in secret.
For instance, if you file a complaint about the illegal dumping of hazardous waste with DHEC, you can tell the media you have filed a complaint and the record of the proceeding is open to the public. If, however, you file a complaint with the Ethics Commission that the governor may have violated limits on campaign donations, you cannot say you have filed a complaint and the investigation is secret. If you do, you can be fined up to $1,000.
John Crangle is the director of the South Carolina chapter of Common Cause and the lawyer in a federal suit against the confidentiality clause of the House Ethics Committee. Crangle considers the secrecy provisions of the Ethics Reform Act to be unconstitutional.
"There are provisions in the act that punish anyone who wilfully makes a false complaint," Crangle said. "There is no legitimate reason for ethics complaints to be kept secret."