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Ethics Cojones 101 – the people, politicians, press

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Our state is on the front end of what should be a huge fight about ethics reform.
To say this fight is important to the future of our state is like saying an oasis is important to a man in the desert. Our duty, as citizens with a huge stake in the outcome of this contest, will be to ensure that the reform we wind up with this time isn’t just another political mirage. And that’s going to take what one well-respected South Carolinian recently called cojones.
Not long ago, S.C. Press Association Attorney Jay Bender wrote a piece entitled Cojones 101, in which he decried the lack of cojones on the part of the press in holding politicians accountable, especially around the issues of public disclosure and secrecy.
Suffice it to say, the press has an incredibly important role to play in pushing for openness and accountability among the political class and if they don’t do their job, then it’s virtually impossible for we, the people, to know what’s really going on.
Bender said it best: “I will say up front here that the use of an anatomical term, while associated with males, does not imply that females in journalism or other fields lack the characteristics that are deservedly applauded when we say someone ‘has balls.’… It takes cojones to be a good news person or organization and in today’s environment it probably takes cojones grandes to be good, but there is no reason for reporters not to stick together in the face of public official arrogance, and no need to acquiesce in the wrongful conduct of public bodies and public officials.”
Now for the politicians. Unlike some, I actually think that most politicians of both parties at least start out wanting to do the right thing, to be good public servants.
The problem is that the current system has become so broken and corrupt that it takes someone with grandes cojones to continually resist both the pressures of their peers and the financial temptations of lobbyists and special interest groups.
They are all human beings, and since the days of the Garden of Eden, it’s been easy to at first look the other way, then think “I’ll have just one,” and finally tell yourself “everyone is doing it.”
Then down they go, on the slippery slope that leads to blatant corruption and abuse.
How can we tell if our politicians have any ethical cojones at all? There is no surefire test, but one indication is to watch them very closely and see what personal financial information they voluntarily report or disclose.
Our financial-disclosure laws for elected officials are a joke, as they are required to disclose almost nothing. A few, however, go above and beyond, and if they are willing to make a more complete personal financial disclosure than is required by law, then that says a lot about them and their sense of ethics.
A second way to tell is to look at their campaign finance reports and see where their money comes from. (All the reports are available online at www.ethics.sc.gov) Look and see if they are getting their money from special interest political action committees (PACs) or from individual donations from the folks back home – the ones who they are supposed to be representing. Matthew 6:21 says it best: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The sad truth is that many legislators get 60, 70, even 80, percent of their campaign money from PACs and the corrupt special interest groups that are ruining our state politics. And what’s worse, most of the politicians raising this dirty money for their campaign accounts don’t even have a credible opponent.
So, where does this leave us, we, the people? The truth is, we are the ones who need to “grow a pair” and hold the politicians accountable; that’s really what a democracy is all about.
If we, all of us – the press, the politicians and the people – are going to get the kind of government in Columbia we want and deserve, we must take this upcoming ethics fight seriously. Most importantly, all of us who really care about our state and its future need to grow a pair.
Given the stakes of this fight, to win we’ll need a pair of cajones muchos grandes.

 

Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats.