SC Government Accountability

March 20, 2012

South Carolina's grade of "F" and ranking as one of the states most at risk for corruption has state lawmakers looking at possible changes in state ethics laws.

The report by two groups, the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity, non-partisan good-government groups based in Washington, was released Monday. It ranks South Carolina 45th, with Georgia ranked 50th, or last. North Carolina is tied for 19th-best.

"There's some question about the methodology of how the report was conducted," says Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia, Senate president pro tem. "But we're on top of it. We're looking into it, and I'm going to get recommendations from the State Ethics Commission as well as the Senate Ethics Committee and try to make some changes, whatever we need to do to tighten up and strengthen our current law."

South Carolina gets grades of "F" in 9 out of 14 categories: public access to information, executive accountability, judicial accountability, state civil service management, state pension fund management, state insurance commissions, legislative accountability, state budget processes, and ethics enforcement agencies. It gets a D- in political financing.

On the positive side, the state gets a C+ for internal auditing, a B- in procurement, a B- in redistricting and a B in lobbying disclosure. Lawmakers say the high grade in lobbying disclosure is because of improvements the state made in its ethics laws after Operation Lost Trust in the early 1990s, an FBI investigation into corruption at the Statehouse.

The report commends the State Ethics Commission for its investigations into former Gov. Mark Sanford and former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard. Sanford was fined $74,000 plus more than $36,000 in commission costs for his use of state airplanes and funds for private travel, some of it related to his admission of having an affair. Ard resigned and was indicted earlier this month for campaign ethics violations and was sentenced to five years of probation and a $5,000 fine.

Rep. J. Roland Smith, R-Warrenville, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, says those two cases show that current laws work. "Does the law need to be strengthened? I'm the first person to tell you we need more tools and the General Assembly is working to put those teeth in the law in order for us to be able to do what we need to do," he says.

For example, his committee can give a House member a public reprimand or even recommend expulsion, but the committee can't do anything to former members or someone who runs for office and is not elected.

House Democrats already had several ethics improvement bills pending before the report was released. Their solutions are: impose term limits on members of the state House and Senate; pass a bill that allows voters to recall elected officials; eliminate the House and Senate Ethics Committees and give that authority to the State Ethics Commission; require lobbyists to post their tax returns online; and impose a two-year ban on lawmakers becoming lobbyists or government employees after they leave office.

Rep. Boyd Brown, D-Winnsboro, has filed two bills. "You know, if we were to triple all ethics fines, like my bills suggest, then there might be some people up here who can't afford to be crooked politicians any longer," he says.

Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, says another problem is that the budget for the State Ethics Commission has been cut from $725,000 in 1999 to $284,000 today. "What laws we have, if there's not enough funding there to enforce them, if there's not enough funding there to provide the investigators to do the investigation, there is no watchdog," he says.

But Democrats say they'll need the help of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate to get anything passed. "The public has an absolute right to believe that the next time a report card like this comes out that South Carolina is in the top 5 and not in the bottom 5," says Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston.

By: Robert Kittle | WSAV News 3

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