Director, Common Cause South Carolina
The State’s readers were treated recently to the musings of a pair of rookie legislators, Rep. Kirkman Finlay and Sen. Thomas McElveen, joined by JoAnne Day of the League of Women Voters, a newcomer to ethics reform, who praised House bill 3945 and ridiculed legislators who opposed the purported ethics-reform bill as “perfectionists,” “concerned” or “unwilling” ( “We must move forward on ethics,” Aug. 14).
It is not surprising, perhaps, that three people so recently acquainted with State House politics should fall for a fake reform bill like H.3945.
In particular, Rep. Finlay’s brief tenure in the House would not encourage much confidence in his actual interest in reform. He was one of the chief sponsors of two looney bills designed to rescue House Speaker Bobby Harrell from the criminal probe by the attorney general into his use of some $300,000 of campaign funds for pay for his personal airplane. Finlay joined with allies to fix a bill to remove Wilson as prosecutor in the Harrell case and empower Harrell himself and the president pro tempore of the Senate to appoint a special prosecutor to take Wilson’s place; they even proposed a constitutional amendment to strip Wilson of his prosecutorial authority.
Common Cause of South Carolina opposed H.3945 when it came to a vote in the Senate at the end of this past session; it was defeated by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and progressives.
No honest analysis of H.3945 could conclude that it was a serious reform proposal. It failed to address the most critical ethics problems that have plagued South Carolina in recent years. It failed to clean up the chronic problem of the misuse of campaign funds for non-campaign purpose. Just in the past few years, a number of officials have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar: Gov. Mark Sanford used campaign money to go on a hunting trip in Ireland; Lt. Gov. Ken Ard was thrown out of office after he bought clothes; Rep. Harold Mitchell was fined more than $20,000 for misuses; and Sen. Robert Ford was referred to the attorney general for buying sex novelties.
Not only did H.3945 not stop the misuse of campaign money for non-campaign purposes; it even proposed to allow candidates to use such funds to pay for family members to go on trips.
The bill did nothing to stop legislative ethics committees from pretending to police their own members. The failure of the House Ethics Committee to do anything about Bobby Harrell’s out-of-control spending of campaign money on his private airplane clearly shows how conflicted and frightened the panel was.
Of course, H.3945 had no whistle-blower measure to protect government employees who report embezzlement, bribery and corruption, even though South Carolina is plagued by such crimes. It had no public integrity unit of the sort proposed by the attorney general to attack public corruption.
As bad as 3945 was, there were many legislators who wanted it to pass so they could say for the next generation that they has passed a wonderful ethics reform bill while they continued to misbehave for the rest of their careers.
In the end, Gov. Nikki Haley declared H.3945 an income-disclosure bill that didn’t address ethics, and Sen. Vincent Sheheen walked away from it, as both candidates for governor clearly saw that the bill fell far below their minimum standards for ethics reform.
The next two years will be a better time for passing a real ethics reform bill, as the 2016 elections will have both the House and Senate facing the voters. By then, perhaps another scandal will further demonstrate the need for a real ethics-reform law.
John Crangle is executive director of Common Cause of South Carolina, a longtime member of the SC Progressive Network.