This post was originally published here on August 22 by Free Times, Columbia, South Carolina's free weekly.
UPDATE: Republican House Speaker Bobby Harrell says he wasn’t contacted about Haley’s ethics package. Harrell also said,“The biggest driving force behind the need for ethics reform in our state was brought about by Governor Haley’s own questionable actions. First and foremost, the unanswered ethical and legal issues raised by the Governor’s past actions should serve as the starting template of any ethics reform effort. The issue of elected officials receiving secret payments from companies with state contracts and pressing lobbyists for cash to benefit personal profit needs to be among the first things addressed in any ethics reform package.”
Also to add to the list of those who didn’t have input in the package: S.C. House Ethics Committee staff counsel.
But, prior to Haley news conference in Columbia at 3 p.m., one member of the public did say he had heard about the reform package a week ago: Allen Olson, former chairman of the Columbia Tea Party.
Two South Carolina Republican leaders today crisscrossed the state with an abruptly announced five-point plan for ethics reform they said is a response to criticism that the state has flimsy laws.
But the seemingly spontaneous state tour by Gov. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson caught a coalition of state ethics reformers off guard, and has some observers shaking their heads at what they feel could amount to a public relations ploy. Haley is set to speak at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., next week. She announced the surprise ethics tour yesterday.
“Having those two people advocating for ethics reform is like having Bonnie and Clyde advocate financial planning,” says John Crangle, director of the state chapter of Common Cause. “I think it’s going to be a really absurd series of events.”
Crangle was the only lobbyist on the state’s last ethics overhaul, the Ethics, Government Accountability and Campaign Reform Act of 1991, which was a reaction to a massive legislative vote-buying, corruption and bribery scandal that found more than a dozen lawmakers indicted by the feds.
Crangle was not asked for any input regarding the latest proposal, he says.
The S.C. Ethics Commission also did not give input for the plan, and hadn’t seen a draft of it as of yesterday, according to the agency’s general counsel Cathy Hazelwood.
The unveiling of Haley and Wilson’s ethics package also came as something of a surprise to Republican Wes Hayes, chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, who plans to unveil an ethics overhaul package he’s been working on with ethics advocates for months.
“She hasn’t talked to me,” Hayes said about the governor and her proposal. “I haven’t seen her ideas yet.”
Hayes has, however, been in touch with Wilson, so he hopes some of what the Haley-Wilson combo unveiled would reflect some of what they’d been discussing.
In May, the limited-government South Carolina Policy Council released an eight-point plan of its own on how to strengthen the state’s ethics laws, based on research it had been conducting for years. Policy Council president Ashley Landess, who Haley once appointed to a fiscal crisis task force that went nowhere, says Haley never asked her input about ethics reform.
Landess says the lack of input from the public isn’t surprising from a governor who tends to draw attention to herself and prop up her public image with window-dressing policy proposal talking points masked as serious reforms.
“Politicians should not be defining the solution to a problem because they are the problem,” Landess says. “The concentration of power and secrecy in this state are the problem. And a political Band-Aid on a policy bullet wound is not going to do anything in this state.”
It’s clear South Carolina needs serious ethics reform.
The state in March earned an ‘F’ grade in the State Integrity Investigation, a project released by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International that ranked states on their risk for corruption. The data-driven assessment of accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms relied on 330 indicators across 14 areas of state government.
Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Hayes said any ethics overhaul he introduced next year would address problems uncovered in the report.
Haley and Wilson did not mention the report in press materials prior to releasing their own ethics reform package.
“The most important thing a public official can do is to try and right the wrongs they come across in public life," Haley said in a statement. "Our ethics laws and processes are wrong. They are too confusing, too insular, and most of all, far too weak. We're going to change that. No longer will South Carolinians be forced to wonder if their government truly belongs to them. These simple, commonsense changes to our ethics system will make South Carolina one of the most ethically stringent states in the country – which is no less than our people deserve.”
The proposal according to Haley:
No Incumbent Exemption for Elections Filings: All candidates for public office – whether incumbent or non-incumbent – should be required to file the same forms for candidacy. The South Carolina Supreme Court’s recent interpretation of state laws regarding candidate filings of Statement of Economic Interest forms created confusion that resulted in the removal of more than 200 candidates from primary election ballots – none of whom were incumbents for the office they were seeking. Current state law must be clarified to avoid incumbency protection and to promote a democratic election process.
Mandatory Conflict of Interest Recusals by Lawyer-Legislators: Recusal requirements for legislators appearing before boards on behalf of private clients should be strengthened to prohibit conflicts of interest and improper influence. Legislators are influencing the appointments of board members whom they appear before on behalf of private clients. For example, lawyer-legislators continue to influence the appointment process and vote at the committee levels during the confirmation process for the Workers’ Compensation Commission, Department of Health and Environmental Control Board, and other quasi-judicial boards.
One Ethics Commission for all Public Officials: Current ethics review processes lacks coordination – public integrity oversight agencies do not have a coordinated approach to investigating and prosecuting ethical misconduct. They also lack credibility – legislative ethics committees police themselves and their colleagues. The public deserves an ethics review process that strengthens public integrity and can handle violations of ethics laws fairly and consistently. Therefore, it’s time for a constitutional amendment to expand the State Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction to include members of the General Assembly and dissolve the legislative ethics committees.
Total Income Disclosure for Elected Officials: Income disclosures empower the public to hold their elected officials accountable. Current state law does not require elected officials to disclose private sources of income. In fact, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, South Carolina is one of only four states that do not require private sources of income to be reported. We need to strengthen our financial disclosure laws to expose potential conflicts of interest. An elected official should report all income received by himself or herself, his or her spouse, and his or her immediate family members (children and other dependents), to include the source, recipient, amount, and how the income was earned. This includes income from lobbyist principals and associated businesses that contract with any government entity. Elected officials should report all fiduciary positions held, whether compensated or uncompensated, to include the name of the entity, title of position, and brief description of duties performed.
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Applies to All Branches of Government: Public information should be freely and equally accessible to the people of South Carolina. Arguably, the strongest branch of government – the Legislature – has the weakest requirements for public records disclosure under our Freedom of Information laws thanks to the legislative exemption in South Carolina’s FOIA law. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, forty-six states have FOIA laws that are stronger regarding disclosure of legislative records. It’s time to do away with the legislative exemption in FOIA so that the public has access to information from all branches of government.
Common Cause’s Crangle, who reviewed the proposal, likened it to using a squirt gun to put out a forest fire.
“There really are no substantive proposals,” he says. “You can’t talk about serious reform in this state without talking about leadership PACs and legislative conflicts of interest. That’s an essential part of any reform package.”
Wilson’s office sent out an email also touting the creation of a Public Integrity Unit, the aim of which will be to “increase confidence in both state and local government, deter corruption, better protect the public trust, and enforce ethics laws to the fullest extent.”
Haley is no stranger to ethics troubles. The State Supreme Court recently announced it would take up an appeal on a lawsuit against her filed by GOP activist and financier John Rainey.
The lawsuit asks whether Haley broke any laws as a legislator either by lobbying a state agency on behalf of the Lexington Medical Center hospital, where she earned $110,000 as a fundraiser, or by doing secret consulting work for Wilbur Smith and failing to properly abstain from legislation benefiting the engineering firm. Both occurred during the time she represented Lexington County as a Republican in the House prior to becoming governor in 2010.
The S.C. House Ethics Committee last month cleared Haley of wrongdoing, but the case is still alive in the courts.
“It is a remarkable coincidence, indeed, that Governor Haley now finds the urgent moment to sound the alarm for the enactment of comprehensive ethics reform long advocated by me,” Rainey said in an email.
— Corey Hutchins
— Image Credit: TranceMist
Corey Hutchins is a reporter for the Columbia Free Times covering South Carolina politics and is the 2011 recipient of the S.C. Press Association's award for Journalist of the Year. He was the South Carolina Reporter for the State Integrity Investigation.