In May we gave a hat tip to environmental reporter Sammy Fretwell for his standout inaugural piece in “State House for Sale,” an ongoing series from Columbia, SC-based newspaper The State. The series aims to examine loopholes in the state’s current Ethics Act as lawmakers move to overhaul the law in response to multiple investigations, resignations, violations, and convictions of elected officeholders.
We said in May we hoped the rest of the series would match the caliber of Fretwell’s opening salvo, and it’s produced some solid reporting that should be required reading for anyone interested in ethics reform in the Palmetto State. The series is likely to win at least one state press association award this winter.
The paper has delivered a dozen stories since last spring on topics ranging from the ways leadership positions pay off in the legislature to discrepancies in how the House and Senate ethics panels interpret potential violations to the gray areas in lobbying registration.
I especially enjoyed a June piece by Adam Beam, who combed through 179 financial disclosure forms to find “a wildly inconsistent system with little oversight, making it impossible to say definitively how much lawmakers earn from public sources.” This part was memorable:
State Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, disclosed that he is a minority owner of the Florence Concrete Co., which he founded in 1955 and managed until 1994. But Leatherman did not report the state Department of Transportation awarded Florence Concrete Co. $735,000 in contracts in 2012, according to state procurement records.
“I don’t know anything about those,” Leatherman said. “I’m not the boss. I don’t know what they get or don’t get or when they get (it).”
As a result, Leatherman contends, disclosing his minority ownership stake—not the value of the company’s state business—meets the requirements of state law.
A bill before the state Legislature would require lawmakers, for the first time, to disclose all of their sources of income, both private and public. South Carolina is the only state that does not require such disclosures from its elected officials. But the proposed law would do little to clear up confusion about what lawmakers are supposed to report from public sources.
Another memorable piece by reporter Jeff Wilkinson examined political campaign donations by corporations—the practice is allowed in South Carolina but banned federally and in 21 states—and how big business also donates to political parties and caucuses to advance their agendas.
The fate of ethics reform in Virginia
Ethics reform has also been a hot issue in Virginia, where beginning in the spring a team of reporters at The Washington Post led the way in breaking news about a gift-giving scandal that embarrassed Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
In July we urged reporters around the state to use the scandal as an opportunity for in-depth reporting on ethics issues. If current coverage is on the mark, it’s important that the press stay on this story if meaningful reform is going to happen.
The Newport News Daily Press had a solid Dec. 29 article about the political appetite for reform this year in the state’s General Assembly. Bottom line: it’s uncertain. Reporter Dave Ress quotes a Republican lawmaker who says, “I don’t think it’s going to be a major issue,” and another who says “I’m sure an ethics bill will be passed.”
Here’s Ress’ analysis of why moving ahead on the issue might prove difficult:
It can be tough to traffic-cop ethics bills through a legislature, basically because lawmakers don’t like voting against an ethics measure, but dislike voting for anything too restrictive. It tends to mean a lot of very quiet efforts to build a consensus, and to make sure there’s no one-up-manship that could embarrass legislators into voting for reforms they don’t really want.
That said, incoming Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe plans to issue an executive order banning gifts of more than $100 to officials in his administration. (He’s also said he will establish an independent ethics commission, which could be meaningful or could be a way to bury the issue.) And Patch.com’s Jason Spencer reported on New Year’s Day about a new legislative proposal that would “limit the amounts of gifts local and state officials could accept and require regular disclosure in a searchable, online database.”
If any ethics reforms do come about, they’re unlikely to carry criminal penalties, according to another Republican lawmaker quoted in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, because of the possibility of unintentional violations. “This is a minefield for detonations,” Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, told the paper in December. “I would be shocked and surprised if criminal penalties were put on any of these things, again because of the pitfalls.”
What’s up with the wage theft problem?