As lawmakers in three Southeastern states prepare for the 2013 legislative session, they’re finding bipartisan agreement on an unlikely agenda: ethics reform. Leaders in South Carolina and Florida have begun work that lawmakers and watchdogs say could lead to the states’ first meaningful reforms in decades. And in Georgia, proponents of stronger rules are rallying behind a slate of measures they hope may finally pass in what has long been a recalcitrant Legislature.
The initiatives all seek some regulation of money and influence. The proposals take aim at independent political spending, asset disclosure and gifts from lobbyists in an effort to bolster transparency and rein in the spiraling costs of running campaigns. In some cases the reforms could go deeper, as lawmakers try to attack the roots of corruption by strengthening ethics oversight and enforcement.
Legislators in South Carolina have taken initial steps toward what could be the first major overhaul of the state’s ethics rules in twenty years. As the Free Times reported this morning, government watchdog groups rattled off their wish lists at a hearing held last week by a panel of state House Democrats. South Carolina earned an overall grade of F for corruption risk from the State Integrity Investigation earlier this year, and fallout from that report — along with a series of recent ethics scandals — appears to have built political consensus on the need for reforms, said John Crangle of South Carolina Common Cause.
Earlier this year the State Integrity Investigation published a story detailing how an obscure, 2010 federal court ruling in South Carolina “kicked the regulatory teeth” out of the state’s campaign finance laws. The ruling essentially stripped the requirement for outside groups to disclose their donors.
This election marks the first in which several powerful Republican incumbents are up for re-election since the ruling, and as The State reports today, the results aren’t pretty for the legislators.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced Thursday the creation of a special commission on ethics reform. The panel will be headed by former state attorneys general and will join with similar efforts in the legislature to recommend a set of ethics reforms for the lawmakers to consider when the 2013 legislative session convenes in January.
In March, the State Integrity Investigation gave South Carolina an F as part of a state-by-state report card on ethics, accountability and transparency. Since then, Haley and other state leaders have been rocked by a series of ethics scandals. With elections nearing, reform is an increasingly hot topic in on the campaign trail.
See The State for complete coverage of Haley’s announcement.
South Carolina’s capital of Columbia is abuzz with political gossip following a report that the House Speaker has failed to properly report hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign spending. Last week, the Post and Courier of Charleston reported that Republican Bobby Harrell has reimbursed himself more than $325,000 from his campaign account since 2008, but has neglected to submit receipts or itemized reports for all the spending, as required by state law.
The failure appears to put Harrell out of compliance with ethics rules, but it’s unclear who exactly will be trying to answer that question. Normally, oversight authority rests with a six-member legislative committee. But, as the Post and Courier points out, Harrell has made campaign contributions to five of those legislators through a PAC he is affiliated with, leading watchdog groups to question the committee’s independence. The chair of the committee told the Post and Courier he couldn’t “afford” to talk about the allegations.
With the start of the Republican National Convention this week, the presidential election makes the turn from the preliminaries to the main event. The conventions, debates and relentless campaign ads will dominate the political landscape until election day in November.
While the focus turns to electing a chief executive, the executive branch of government at the state level actually can have more direct impact on the lives of citizens. One of the 14 categories we examined in the State Integrity Investigation focused on executive accountability, in which reporters looked at the laws that keep watch on the actions of governors across all 50 states.
The State Integrity Investigation ranked New Jersey as the top state the executive accountability category, in part because of the laws there requiring disclosure of any conflicts of interest for the governor and the auditing procedures in place to review those disclosures. Governors are required to submit an asset disclosure statement, which is posted online for citizens to view within 24 hours. The statement is audited by the State Ethics Commission.
South Carolina brought up the rear in this category, with an 'F' grade. In South Carolina, the governor is required to file a "statement of economic interest'' before taking the oath of office; however, the governor isn't required by that statement to disclose any information about her assets or sources of income. South Carolina has poor financial disclosure laws for all state officials; proposals on the table now from both legislators and Gov. Nikki Haley take aim at that weakness and may be considered in the 2013 legislative session.
One area in which both New Jersey and South Carolina scored poorly -- along with most other states -- involves the ability of governors to set up non-profit organizations that can be used to reward political supporters or circumvent campaign finance laws. Neither state addresses that possibility through statute, and it is a gap in regulation among most other states as well. Tennessee, which scored third in this category, views this kind of organizations in the same category as political action committees and requires disclosure.
For months, South Carolina legislators, the attorney general and the state election commission have been working on a package of ethics reforms to be considered in the next legislative session.
On Wednesday, Gov. Nikki Haley put forth her own five-point plan for ethics reform, including a number of provisions that would regulate behavior Haley herself engaged in while she was in the Legislature. As reported by Gina Smith in The State, Haley's decision to unilaterally offer up a reform package is drawing fire from some of those who already have been at work on a proposal.
Smith reports: "Haley, recently cleared of ethics violation charges, toured the state with South Carolina's top law-enforcement officer, Attorney General Alan Wilson, to unveil a five-point ethics reform proposal But House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R- Charleston, and others said Haley only is trying to hijack the efforts of lawmakers who have been working on ethics reform legislation for months. “... (I)f we had these reforms in place before Governor Haley committed her actions, she would probably still be meeting with the attorney general, only in a different place,” Harrell said in a statement.''
In response to the criticism, The State reports, Haley said:
“As governor, it’s important for me to lead. You lead and you let the Legislature know what we want,” adding lawmakers likely will come up with additional ethics reforms that will strengthen her plan.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was cleared recently in an ethics investigation that focused on whether she should have disclosed that she had a contract with an engineering firm that did millions in state business while she was also serving in the state's legislature. Advocates of transparency in government cite some of the elements of this case in their push to improve the state's ethics laws.
In a story Sunday, The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., explores the issue of ethics reform in South Carolina and the uphill battle those pushing for change may face in the legislature. The story cites South Carolina's F grade and ranking of 45th in the State Integrity Investigation. South Carolina also received an F in the category of ethics enforcement.
The State story details that unlike 44 other states, South Carolina does not require state legislators to fully reveal who they work for or how much they are paid. Their only requirement is to disclose employment and money earned in government jobs and contracts, not in the private sector. This leaves open the possibility that legislators could have a conflict of interest between their private employment and their legislative duty that would go undetected by citizens.
According to The State, State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, and the House Ethics Commission, the S.C. Ethics Commission and state Attorney General Alan Wilson began talks in July on overhauling the state’s ethics laws. The group hopes to prefile legislation in December, prior to the January start of the legislature’s new session. Among the proposals is a requirement for legislators to disclose private-sector employment.
“The recipe for corruption is concentration of power and secrecy. And we have both in this state to a high degree,” Ashley Landess of the S.C. Policy Council told The State. Her group just released an eight-point plan to increase transparency, including requiring full income disclosure from legislators.
You can find the full story at The State.
State Integrity news for South Carolina from The (Columbia) State:
Recent events have exposed many weaknesses in South Carolina’s ethics and open-records laws, weaknesses that leave taxpayers in the dark whey they try to watchdog what legislators are doing and hold them accountable for their actions.
S.C. ethics regulations are so weak that the state was given an “F” grade this year and a ranking of 45th among the 50 states from the State Integrity Investigation, a project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.
Read more the The State.
State Integrity news for North Carolina and South Carolina from the Charlotte Observer:
A study by the State Integrity Investigation, which ranks states by their corruption risk, found that both North and South Carolina public record laws fail to provide an appeals process for denied requests or impose penalties on agencies violating public records laws.
North Carolina’s access to public records ranked 43rd and South Carolina ranked 50th in the study, which also evaluated state budget processes, lobbying disclosure and judicial accountability. Both received an “F” in public access to information.
Advocates for open government say the culture of secrecy creates obstacles for both citizens and media organizations seeking public records. These disputes are often only settled after expensive, lengthy lawsuits.
Read more from the Charlotte Observer.