ethics laws needed for public officials
By Andy Brack
S.C. Statehouse Report
JUNE 14, 2002 -- Charleston City Councilman Kwadjo
Campbell is the poster child for state ethics reform.
Weeks after his May re-election, voters still have
no idea who gave money to Campbell's campaign. State law requires
candidates to file pre-election disclosure forms 15 days before
elections. By June, Campbell had not filed the paperwork. He says
he's "planning to do it."
It's not like he forgot. The State Ethics Commission
fined him $1,200 for failing to submit paperwork in his first 1997
election. Eventually, he paid the fine after admitting in a consent
order that he violated the law. Since 2000, he's racked up another
$1,400 in fines for failing to disclose contributors. He says he
"plans to pay it."
The long and short of it is Campbell, like a handful
of other South Carolina elected officials, snubs his nose at the
It's wrong. Voters lose. Why? Because if they don't
have a chance to determine who is influencing candidates, they don't
have all of the information they need to cast their votes.
Sweeping campaign finance legislation this year
didn't get final approval from the General Assembly. But it contains
reforms that will close loopholes and toughen ethics statutes, officials
Ten years ago, the General Assembly strengthened
ethics laws, particularly for lobbyists, following Operation Lost
Trust. In that federal sting operation, authorities indicted 28
legislators, lobbyists and others in a vote-buying scandal that
rocked state government. Twenty-seven were convicted.
Former U.S. Attorney Bart Daniel of Charleston,
who coordinated the prosecutions, says tougher ethics laws help
voters be better prepared in the voting booth.
"As long as you let in the sunshine and let
people see where you get income and where you get your contributions,
it's much more likely the public can detect a conflict of interest,"
he says. "But that does not stop people who want to lie, cheat
Current ethics rules allow the State Ethics Commission
to penalize candidates up to $600 per incident for failing to disclose
contributors every quarter and 15 days before an election. For some
people, incurring a capped fine of $600 apparently is worth having
the luxury of not having to disclose contributions prior to an election.
When the General Assembly reconvenes next year,
it should add teeth to ethics laws to ensure willful, repeat violators
can't continue to keep contributors secret before elections.
In the best of worlds, lawmakers would create a
mechanism to keep non-filers who win elections from being able to
vote temporarily on the board to which they're elected. Perhaps
legislators will consider a constitutional referendum to allow the
state to suspend elected officials until they comply with ethics
There's another way that wouldn't require a constitutional
referendum. The General Assembly could add provisions to next year's
campaign finance reforms to allow the Ethics Commission to recommend
suspension of any elected official who did not file required disclosures.
That way, the public body on which the official served - not the
state - would determine whether it wanted one of its members to
be able to serve.
Regardless, lawmakers should remember what happened
10 years ago in Operation Lost Trust and toughen ethics laws next
year. Until they do, officials like Campbell will be able to keep
voters in the dark about how they run their campaigns.