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The resignation of former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, followed shortly by his indictment and guilty plea, marks another milestone in the long road of ethical lapses by public officials in South Carolina. One might have thought that Lost Trust, the 1992 sting operation wherein several legislators were caught essentially selling their votes, would have served as a corrective for future politicians, but they continue to live up (or down) to expectations.
We now learn from the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity Center that South Carolina ranks 45th among the 50 states and scored an “F” on the center’s state integrity investigation. Components of the report card for which South Carolina individually received an “F” included public access to information, executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, state budget processes, state civil service management and ethics enforcement agencies.
One of the center’s criteria for judging state ethics agencies is “In law, the agency or set of agencies tasked with enforcing state ethics rules has jurisdiction across all branches (including legislatures) of the state government.” The grade for South Carolina is zero because the S.C. General Assembly polices itself on the question of ethics, contrary to the best practices as defined by the center.
South Carolina’s ethics laws, however, are lax for all public officials, not just legislators. The ethics laws themselves require something less than full ethical behavior, which could be one of the reasons that South Carolina scored an “F” in this area.
I resigned as chairman of the S.C. Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) effective Dec. 10, 2010. In March 2011, I received $5,000 in deferred pay for the year 2010 from the BEA. While preparing my 2011 Statement of Economic Interest (SEI) for the calendar year 2010, I inquired of the S.C. State Ethics Commission whether I should report the $5,000 then or I should plan to file another SEI in 2012 to report wages received in 2011. The Ethics Commission informed me, in fact, that I needed to file no report at all in 2011 (for 2010) since I no longer held the office as of April 15, 2011.
General Counsel Cathy Hazelwood informed my office by e-mail that, “Mr. Rainey doesn’t need to file a 2011 SEI. You file if you’re in the position on April 15, 2011. He’s not, so no filing is required. I would delete the one you’ve started unless he must file for some other position.”
South Carolina law indeed states that, “A person required to file a statement who is no longer in office on April 15 of the year following the first filing, is not required to file an updated statement.” This regulation, to add insult to injury, became law in 1997 as part of the post-Lost Trust ethics reforms. It was written by the Ethics Commission and sent to the General Assembly, which, according to its 1997 journal, never voted on it, thereby allowing it to become law since regulations require a negative vote to stop them. The whole lot, therefore, collaborated to create by law a period of time during which public officials may hide from public scrutiny.
The public lost its right to know whether a public official received anything that may have constituted a conflict of interest during this time. Such a conflict, if it existed, remains unknown unless probable cause ever exists for law enforcement to investigate.
Our ethics laws release public officials from their requirements at the very time when they know that they will not again face scrutiny by election or confirmation. This could not be more backward.
Ard, for instance, may choose to not file this year a SEI for 2011, during which he served as lieutenant governor, simply because he will not hold the office on April 15 of 2012. He also, of course, may choose not to file in 2013 a SEI for the two and a half months of 2012 during which he held office.
This 14-and-a-half-month free pass on ethics reporting simply boggles the mind, particularly since the pass resulted from a resignation stemming from ethics reporting violations.
I filed a SEI in 2011 (for 2010), including the $5,000 paid to me in 2011, simply because the spirit of the ethics law calls for full disclosure during one’s tenure in office.
I urge Ard to file SEIs for 2011 and 2012. This, however, is not about Mr. Ard. This is about the fact that our ethics laws make a farce of the notion of accountability and transparency, and therefore contribute to the status of South Carolina as a national laughingstock. And so it goes.
John S. Rainey is a former chairman of the S.C. Board of Economic Advisors (2003-2010).