Phone: 843.670.3996

2002-2004, South Carolina Statehouse Report. Published weekly during the S.C. legislative session. South Carolina Statehouse Report is a media project of The Brack Group, Charleston, S.C.

SCIway -- South Carolina Information Highway


Tougher 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 disclosure law.

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 say.

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 and steal."

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 disclosure laws.

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.

11/3: Use your vote wisely: a lesson
10/27: SC GOP to keep control of House
10/20: Black voters may be secret weapon
10/13: Talk is cheap; action takes courage
10/6: Creating sunshine to dampen negative ads
9/29: SC Set to be world leader in news research
9/22: SC Senate shift could be around corner
9/15: Gov's race about barbs, ads, not people
9/8: Shorfall may cause look at prison alternatives
9/2: Revitalize your patriotism by participating
8/25: S.C.'s fiscal situation could be a lot worse
8/18: State wetlands policy needed
8/11: The bully vs. the whiner
8/4: Noah's Ark approach to tax reform
7/28: Two-party system could be political outcome
7/21: State budget woes loom for 2 more years
7/14: Agencies can do better job on Internet
7/5: Thank a guardsman today for service
6/28: Hodges-Sanford race will be wild ride
6/21: Sanford-Peeler race's impact on GOP
6/14: Ethics reform needed now

More done than you'd think(1.23)
More education $ also means cuts (1.22)
PSC reform to come, but when?(1.21)



If you've got any suggestions for Statehouse Report, send information to: