By Paul Gable
The current discussion on ethics reform for public officials in South Carolina appears to be veering off the main track that will establish public confidence in the governing process.
The discussion this week appears to be about additional funding for the S.C. Ethics Commission. Extra funding is necessary for this agency, which has been way underfunded for way too long.
According to ethics commission director Herb Hayden, approximately 70 percent of the funding for the agency’s budget comes from fees and fines.
This is akin to funding police departments with traffic fines. ‘You have to write those traffic tickets if you want to get paid this week. The assaults, burglaries and murders will have to wait until the paycheck is guaranteed.’
In our opinion, much is the same at the ethics commission. While the number and size of ethics fines, for relatively minor infractions on filing requirements, have increased in inverse proportion to the reduction in state budget funding, the real ethics violations have gone relatively unnoticed or investigated.
When Gov. Nikki Haley was accused of lobbying for two employers while a member of the House, the allegations went virtually uninvestigated and the hearing was little more than a pro forma affair to exonerate her.
True, this ‘investigation’ was conducted by the House Ethics Committee, which would disappear with an expanded ethics commission, but the principle is the same.
When we first started looking into the Coastal Kickback scandal in 2009, ethics commission personnel said there appeared to be no problem. When questioned how a company that had been disbanded 18 months previously could ‘donate’ over $25,000 to various politicians and how 14 other LLC’s with no employees, no office, no bank account and no source of revenue could do the same, there was no answer.
However, additional investigation of these LLC’s was initiated, which eventually evolved into FBI and IRS investigations from which we are still awaiting the results.
Real investigations into serious allegations are the only answer for increasing public confidence in the political process.
More funding, more investigative personnel and better and stricter ethics laws are all necessary parts of the equation if real ethics reform is to take place.
But, you have to decide what is needed before you discuss funding.
Ethics reform cannot be limited to a combined agency with a few more dollars in order to gain credibility with the general public.