By Paul Gable
House District 78 candidate Beth Bernstein released a seven-point ethics reform plan for state legislators yesterday.
Bernstein’s plan hits at the root causes of many of the ethics problems we find at the state level. Placing ethics investigations into the hands of an independent agency, rather than by peer panels, and term limits for all legislators would go a long way to improving ethics in the General Assembly.
When Operation Lost Trust erupted 20 years ago, putting both lobbyists and lawmakers in jail, changes were made to state ethics laws. Normally these types of changes are made to tighten laws to eliminate illegal actions.
Not in South Carolina. The General Assembly was determined to never again expose its members to outside investigations. The Senate and House Ethics Committees were formed by state law virtually guaranteeing no ethical oversight on the actions of state legislators.
That’s kind of like letting you decide if, by going 90 in a 35 mph zone, you were speeding or not.
Now Bernstein, a Columbia attorney, has come forward with an ethics reform package that could go a long way to bringing better, ethical government to South Carolina.
Of course, nothing is perfect and ethics reform is extremely difficult to bring to South Carolina. In Horry County, it has taken federal investigators three years to try and determine if running hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations through LLC’s to hide the origin of the money, amounts to money laundering, bribery and other possible illegal activity.
No indictments or arrests yet even though the LLC’s had no evidence of offices, employees or cash flow, two were not registered with the state and one had gone out of business 18 months prior to making tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations.
Sounds like business as usual.
Bernstein’s ethics reform plan probably has no chance at being passed into law, but it sure would be fun to watch a group of new legislators try to buck the system and at least force debate on it.
The Bernstein Seven-Point Point Ethics Reform Plan
Term Limits for All Legislators – 10 years for House, 12 years for Senate. South Carolina cannot afford to have career politicians. If we implement term limits for legislators, we can prevent what is supposed to be public service from turning into a career.
No political contributions during legislative session. It is no secret that money can control votes in the General Assembly. By eliminating any and all political contributions during legislative session, we can ensure that no votes are cast due to the exchanging of money.
Full disclosure of lawmaker’s income sources. It is vital to the integrity of the General Assembly for legislators to disclose from which sources they are being paid. This is especially important if a ban on political contributions during legislative session is passed. No legislator should be able to receive a paycheck solely for being a member of the General Assembly. This added layer of transparency will prevent that abuse of power.
Eliminate Partisan Ethics Committees, fully fund investigative unit at SC Ethics Commission. Asking legislators to police other legislators is like asking the fox to guard the hen house. To make matters worse, the House Ethics Committee is overwhelmingly partisan in contrast to almost every other ethics committee in the country. This is wrong. We must eliminate the House and Senate Ethics Committees and give authority and investigative power to the South Carolina Ethics Commission.
Show proof of receipts for all campaign expenditures/reimbursements on ethics filings. Legislators must understand that campaign money is not their personal money. We have consistently seen elected officials co-mingle funds without disclosing proper documentation. We must stop this abuse of power and put stringent measures in place to ensure transparency. If legislators have nothing to hide, they should be required to prove it.
Eliminate “blackout period” – require candidates to file weekly ethics reports in October before election. It is important for voters to know exactly who is contributing to legislators and candidates. Unfortunately, under the current rules, there is a two-week period prior to election day when candidates can accept campaign contributions without having to disclose that information until after the election is over. This is commonly referred to as the “blackout period.” This practice allows special interest groups to bankroll campaigns because the record of their contributions will not be available to the public until after voters go to the polls. In an effort to give voters true transparency, I will be posting weekly contribution summaries on my website during the blackout period so voters know exactly who is funding my campaign.
Five year waiting period on legislators becoming lobbyists: One of the potential issues with state government is the prominence of the “good ole boy” system. Often times, when legislators retire or lose an election, they return to the state house as powerful special interest lobbyists. They use their connections in the Legislature to make money for their clients, without having to answer to voters. Instead of a one year ban on legislators becoming lobbyists, let’s put a strict five year waiting period in place so legislators can’t make a career out of being a former member of the General Assembly. Public service should be about serving people, not getting rich.