Senate to debate banning ethics violators from seeking re-election

McKie

Pulisher’s note:  Since 2018, The Voice has been in the forefront of reporting on Richland Two School Board member Amelia McKie and other local officials who have failed to file campaign disclosure and other ethics commission forms in connection with their political campaigns. As she was not held accountable, McKie’s fines and penalties have swelled to over $57,000.

A Post & Courier Uncovered investigation last year into elected officials’ abuse of the S.C. ethics laws was produced in collaboration with The Voice of Blythewood and Fairfield County and eight other newspapers to help bring accountability to the violators of the state’s ethics laws.

COLUMBIA — Months after a newspaper investigation exposed how dozens of political officials across South Carolina get away with refusing to pay their ethics fines, state lawmakers appear to be taking action.

A Senate committee will soon debate a proposal to ban such officials from seeking reelection unless they pay their penalties, an effort to make politicians take the state’s ethics laws — and the watchdog that enforces them — more seriously.

That proposal, S. 188, is one of more than two dozen good-government bills that lawmakers could consider as they begin their 2022 session at the Statehouse this month.

Several, like S. 188, address problems that were exposed over the past year by Uncovered, an investigative partnership between The Post and Courier and 17 local newspapers that seeks to expose corruption, conflicts of interest, abuses of power and holes in oversight in every corner of the state.

The project has drawn new attention to questionable conduct within city councils, school districts, fire departments, natural gas authorities, state agencies and the government watchdogs who are tasked with keeping them in line.

Political leaders have responded to some of the scandals, but whether 2022 will become a year for ethics reform at the Statehouse remains to be seen.

Last week, Gov. Henry McMaster urged lawmakers to nearly double the budgets of the Inspector General’s Office and State Ethics Commission, giving them more money to hire investigators and uncover misconduct. The Columbia Republican also called for greater ethics training for the state’s scandal-scarred sheriffs and proposed requiring special interests that lobby local governments to register with the state and disclose their efforts. The governor is expected to tout his ethics plan at his Jan. 19 State of the State address.

One of his top challengers in the 2022 governor’s race, Charleston Democrat Joe Cunningham, has released his own anti-corruption agenda. The former congressman’s plan includes term limits, strengthening the Ethics Commission and limiting special interests’ ability to influence the General Assembly.

Other lawmakers have proposed their own piecemeal reforms — everything from closing ethics loopholes for utility officials to expanding the state’s Freedom of Information Act to enacting greater restrictions on lobbying.

But even with the heightened attention on ethics, pushing these proposals through the Legislature will be no easy task.

“Having worked very hard for ethics reform many years and having seen many great proposals die, I can’t say I’m wildly optimistic about getting everything,” said Lynn Teague, vice president of the League of Women Voters.

Indeed, there is much work to do.

Stiff-arming the Ethics Commission

One of the most realistic proposals is S. 188 — state Sen. Greg Hembree’s bill to ban ethics debtors from seeking reelection until they pay their fines.

The Little River Republican initially filed the bill in December 2020, before the Legislature even began its two-year session. But it got no attention, languishing for more than a year without so much as a subcommittee debate.

That’s changing now, Hembree told The Post and Courier.

As part of its Uncovered series, the newspaper revealed in August that no fewer than 50 public officials were holding office in South Carolina despite being listed on the State Ethics Commission’s “debtors list.” That 28-page chart lists 370 politicians, lobbyists and political groups who have run afoul of ethics laws but refused to pay their fines.

The story showed how the Ethics Commission is able to recoup just a sliver of the $2.9 million those debtors owe to taxpayers each year. Meanwhile, the officials on the list — mayors, county council members, even state lawmakers — continue to seek and win reelection.

Hembree’s bill would incentivize those officials to pay up — and perhaps cause them to take ethics laws — by threatening their ability to hold public office.

Most bills that are filed at the Statehouse fade into obscurity without ever getting a hearing. But Hembree appears to have overcome that hurdle. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke Rankin, R-Myrtle Beach, has pledged to have a subcommittee take up and vet S. 188, a critical first step toward serious debate and passage.

“We’re going to take a look at it, and hopefully we’re going to get some action on it,” Hembree said.

Expanding a watchdog’s authority

Lawmakers will also take a serious look at spending more than $3 million to bolster the funding of the State Ethics Commission and Inspector General’s Office, two agencies that together employee about a dozen investigators.

Gov. McMaster has called on legislators to more than double the funding of each agency, empowering them to hire more sleuths and probe allegations of waste, fraud, abuse and other types of misconduct by public officials.

In a recent budget hearing, Inspector General Brian Lamkin told lawmakers the new money would help him hire nine more investigators, increasing his eight-member staff to 19.

Lawmakers will also consider a proposal to expand the Lamkin’s jurisdiction, currently limited to state agencies. A proposal by Hembree, S. 202, would empower the inspector general to also investigate school districts. McMaster wants to expand the bill even more, allowing investigations into cities, counties and nonprofits that get state money.

Lamkin said on Jan. 12 that his office has had to pull the plug on investigations in the past because of his office’s limited jurisdiction. But local governments and school districts are sure to oppose any effort to let the inspector general crawl through their finances.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said lawmakers would consider those ideas, but he worries about spreading the Inspector General’s Office too thin by expanding its potential workload. He said both the Ethics Commission and Inspector General’s Office will need to explain what they could do with the extra money and authority.

“If you give it too much (to do), it’s going to be less effective in the areas where you need it to be effective,” the Aiken Republican said.

An uphill battle

Other ethics proposals are less realistic as the General Assembly enters the second of a two-year session.

Legislators spent large chunks of their 2021 calendar mired in debates over abortion, guns and COVID-19 issues, such as mask mandates at K-12 schools.

This year, they must navigate a highly contentious redistricting debate and determine how to divvy up the largest spending package in South Carolina history, fueled by mounds of federal aid and a state economy that performed better than expected during the pandemic.

That could leave little time for proposals that aren’t sexy, face opposition or lack grassroots momentum.

For example, a bill filed last February by a trio of senators — and backed by the governor — that aimed to close ethics loopholes for big-spending natural gas utilities has gone nowhere. S. 548 was proposed days after an Uncovered story revealed how commissioners at the state’s five public gas authorities secretly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to send themselves to luxurious retreats in recent years.

But the bill still hasn’t received a hearing from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Another bill, H. 3622, would apply the Palmetto State’s Freedom of Information Act to legislators, who have long guarded their emails and official records from prying eyes. But that proposal, which also has the governor’s support, is likely a nonstarter for the legislators who write the law.

At one point last spring, Greenville-area legislators were talking about creating a task force to study possible reforms for the area’s little-scrutinized special purpose districts. That came after an Uncovered investigation found that top officials at one of those districts, Clear Spring Fire and Rescue in Simpsonville, were accused of stealing public money, promoting a commissioner’s spouse, showering themselves with perks and retaliating against underlings who questioned them.

But that task force never materialized. Instead, state Rep. Bobby Cox said, legislators had informal talks with special district leaders about what can be done to ensure the problems at Clear Spring don’t happen somewhere else.

As a result of the scandal, the Greer Republican said, Greenville legislators have spent more time and effort screening potential commissioners before appointing them to lead special districts.

“It’s never been done before,” Cox said. “It was always a rubber stamp.”

Cox said he also would push to require more ethics training for public officials at all levels of government. Such training is currently voluntary, often offered when a politician first takes office.

Reasons for hope?

Legislators could face outside pressure to take action on ethics in 2022, especially since it’s an election year.

Perhaps with a finger to the political winds, both Gov. McMaster and one of his Democratic challengers, Cunningham, have publicly released their plans to restore South Carolinians’ faith in government.

In fact, Cunningham made his anti-corruption plan the first policy rollout of his gubernatorial campaign. It includes term limits for all legislators, a ban on campaign fundraising during the legislative session, giving the State Ethics Commission sole jurisdiction to investigate and punish misconduct by legislators, and stopping dark money groups from anonymously influencing elections.

“People are fed up with corrupt politics, and South Carolina is rampant with them,” Cunningham said in a recent interview.

Especially in an election year, lawmakers would do well to try to position themselves on the right side of any ethics debates, former S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges suggested.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if some ambitious legislators see promoting that as good for their political careers,” Hodges, a Democrat, said. “I wouldn’t downplay the importance of that. I think you’ll find there are legislators who have paid close attention to that and see this as an issue they can take on as their own.”

But passing ethics reform could also require grassroots activists and voters to contact their legislators and demand change. And building that momentum has been a struggle, said Teague, the League of Women Voters official.

When her group urges residents to call their lawmakers, they often respond that it won’t do any good because government is broken beyond repair, Teague said.

Teague said government leaders “should be ashamed they’ve given the people of South Carolina reason to be cynical.”

Perhaps 2022 will be the year to change their minds.

Comments

  1. JEFF SCHAFFER says

    ethically speaking… Mickel Trapp has been fined by the ethics commission why is he still holding an elected seat

    And why has he not paid the county back his falsely represented education fund??? he stated
    ” Would be paid on the first of Never”

    JEFF SCHAFFER

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