Coalition: SC Ethics Bill Would Take Us Backwards
June 16, 2014. A coalition of watchdog/policy groups said today that, according to close analyses of the “ethics reform bill,” the legislation offers no real reform but instead creates new ways to protect politicians and their leadership PACs from disclosure, allows lawmakers to lobby government entities on behalf of themselves and clients, and to spend their campaign funds on virtually anything.
The bill has passed the House but was delayed by the Senate to give the public time to digest the 23-page conference report. Governor Haley has indicated that she intends to sign it. The South Carolina Policy Council, Common Cause of South Carolina, and Palmetto Liberty issued the following statements on the legislature’s latest attempt at ethics reform:
Ashley Landess, President, SC Policy Council:
“Over the past six years SCPC has exhaustively researched the concentration of power and secrecy that makes our state the most corrupt in the nation. We have put forward a clear path to eliminating the ‘legal corruption’ that is the root cause of our state’s most serious problems. Legislative leaders have done everything they can to fight citizens and protect their own power to profit from their offices, and this bill proves that. Not only have lawmakers preserved their ‘leadership PACs’; they’ve allowed them to disclose less information than ever. By contrast, the bill goes after groups that are not directly influencing elections, which clearly violates what the courts have ruled free speech.
“Legislative leaders gutted the law prohibiting use of campaign funds for personal purposes, and weakened the law prohibiting them from using their office for personal gain by allowing them to lobby government entities on behalf of their own businesses. They have protected their leadership PACs by allowing officials ‘agents’ to control them, and even limited the information to be disclosed from ethics committee hearings.
“None of this moves the ball forward. Instead it allows more protection for politicians and less for private citizens and their organizations. Legislative leaders clearly have no intention of supporting substantive reform. The message seems to be: ‘Trust us.’ But these are the same legislative leaders who, in 2013, tried to use this same bill to decriminalize the ethics code and silence their critics. No one trusts them – and that’s especially true in light of the fact that several of the bill’s provisions seem designed to protect House Speaker Bobby Harrell from a potential criminal prosecution. It is unfortunate that so many House members passed the bill, either because they didn’t understanding it or because they actually support it. It’s also concerning that the governor has stated her support for this bill despite the dangers it poses to citizens’ ability to challenge their elected officials and control their own government.”
John Crangle, Executive Director, Common Cause:
“Common Cause of South Carolina opposes H.3945 in its present form. The bill not only fails to address existing ethics problems but also creates new ethics problems. In short, this bill is a pious fraud. It fails to stop the use of campaign funds for non-campaign purposes, including personal use. It fails to end the self-policing of legislators or secrecy in the ethics complaint process, and it doesn’t truly eliminate leadership PACS run by key lawmakers.
“What it does do is allow agents to run leadership PACs for lawmakers, interfere with free speech of activist groups, and permit more misuse of campaign funds.”
Talbert Black, Executive Director, Palmetto Liberty
“Palmetto Liberty was formed to hold politicians in South Carolina accountable. Our efforts have been frustrated at every turn by our state’s weak ethics laws. Those laws need to be strengthened. The loopholes need to be closed. H.3945 has been put forward as the solution. We hoped that it was at least a small step forward. Instead, it is a large step backward.
“H.3945 has been touted to: (1) clamp down on conflicts of interest by strengthening laws that prevent lawmakers from lobbying; (2) end so-called leadership PACs that allow folks like Bobby Harrell to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect legislators that obey his will; and (3) limit spending from campaign accounts to actual campaign expenses.
“But a careful examination of the conference committee report reveals it does just the opposite. If it were truthfully labeled, H.3945 would be called the Unethical Reform Bill. The legislation makes it legal for lawmakers to lobby on an issue that can ‘become a contested case.’ That limits absolutely nothing because everything has the potential to become a contested case. It also makes leadership PACs completely legal as long as they are run indirectly, through an ‘agent.’
“Additionally it eliminates any requirement to disclose donors and expenditures as long as less than half of a PAC’s donations are spent on electioneering. That would mean the Palmetto Leadership PAC could continue to be run by Bobby Harrell’s agent and wouldn’t be required to disclose any donors.
“Further, the bill makes spending from a campaign account on things like travel to speaking engagements, ‘educational seminars,’ and political party events or anything else that a politician can explain to be part of his or her ‘official responsibilities’ completely legal.
“Proponents of this bill are saying we need to pass it even though it doesn’t do everything we want it to do. But it’s not just that it doesn’t do everything we want it to do. H.3945 actually would make the Ethics Act worse than it already is.”
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