Af­ter cor­rup­tion probe, ethics re­form is on State House agenda

The Sun News (Sunday) - - News - BY BRIS­TOW MARCHANT [email protected]­

The past two years have been rough for South Carolina’s Gen­eral As­sem­bly.

On top of the leg­isla­tive is­sues fac­ing the state dur­ing the 2017-18 ses­sion, law­mak­ers have seen three of their col­leagues re­sign af­ter plead­ing guilty to mis­con­duct charges, and a for­mer pow­er­ful S.C. House mem­ber con­victed of pub­lic cor­rup­tion.

The State House cor­rup­tion probe has in­creased the odds that law­mak­ers will ad­dress ethics is­sues when they re­turn to Columbia for a new ses­sion in Jan­uary.

“If we don’t have our march­ing or­ders now, we will never have them,” said state Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pick­ens.

Clary plans to re-in­tro­duce leg­is­la­tion to re­quire more trans­parency in “dark money” — the se­cre­tive money that fu­els out­side groups that run cam­paign ads, largely anony­mously.

“They have th­ese vague names like ‘The Com­mit­tee for All Things Good,’ and you don’t know who’s in­volved or who their donors are,” said state Rep. Mandy Pow­ers Nor­rell, D-Lancaster, who is co-spon­sor­ing the leg­is­la­tion.

Com­bat­ing dark money was one of the rec­om­men­da­tions in a state grand jury re­port on pub­lic cor­rup­tion. But the pro­posal never gained trac­tion in last Jan­uary’s ses­sion.

Nev­er­the­less, it is one of a slew of bills that law­mak­ers plan to in­tro­duce this year to ad­dress ethics con­cerns — from how elec­tions are paid for to how elec­tion dis­trict lines are drawn, and even how long pub­lic of­fi­cials con­victed of cor­rup­tion should go to jail.

State Sen. Dick Har­pootlian, D-Rich­land, won a spe­cial elec­tion Nov. 6 by run­ning against cor­rup­tion at the State House. The for­mer prose­cu­tor said his top pri­or­ity in the new ses­sion is cre­at­ing a manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tence for any elected of­fi­cial con­victed of mis­us­ing their of­fices or cam­paign funds for per­sonal gain.

“The statute right now, as (spe­cial prose­cu­tor) David Pas­coe has found out, is inart­fully drawn,” Har­pootlian said, forc­ing pros­e­cu­tors to charge of­fend­ing law­mak­ers with the more vague, catch-all of­fense of “mis­con­duct in of­fice.”

Har­pootlian wants to see a more spe­cific cor­rup­tion charge de­fined in state law, in­clud­ing a min­i­mum five-year prison sen­tence for vi­o­la­tors.

For­mer state Rep. Jim Har­ri­son, by con­trast, re­ceived an 18-month sen­tence when he was con­victed of mis­con­duct and per­jury charges in Oc­to­ber. Three other now-for­mer leg­is­la­tors — ex-Reps. Jim Mer­rill and Rick Quinn, and for­mer Sen. John Cour­son — re­ceived no jail time af­ter plead­ing guilty and agree­ing to re­sign their seats.

Har­pootlian also took aim at out­side spend­ing in his own race, go­ing to court to chal­lenge ads against him that were paid for by the S.C. Se­nate Repub­li­can Cau­cus. Har­pootlian con­tended the ads vi­o­lated state spend­ing lim­its and a judge agreed, forc­ing them off the air.

Mean­while, state Sen. Mike Fan­ning, D-Fair­field, will re-in­tro­duce a mea­sure to force elected of­fi­cials to pay for the spe­cial elec­tions re­quired to re­place them if their le­gal trou­bles force them to re­sign.

Fan­ning’s bill would al­low judges to re­quire dis­graced politi­cians to pay that ex­pense in the form of resti­tu­tion as part of their pun­ish­ment.

“We’re see­ing this more and more,” Fan­ning said. “At some point, the people have to stop pay­ing for it.”

Fan­ning wants to see other re­forms as well — in­clud­ing re­quir­ing more re­port­ing of how cam- paigns spend their money, and re­stric­tions on po­lit­i­cal spend­ing by state­sanc­tioned mo­nop­o­lies, like util­ity gi­ant SCANA.

He also sup­ports ef­forts to end par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing in S.C. elec­tions.

A re­cent poll by Winthrop Univer­sity showed two-thirds of South Carolini­ans sup­ported end­ing the prac­tice of draw­ing elec­toral lines to ben­e­fit one po­lit­i­cal party.

Clary and Fan­ning will rein­tro­duce a bill to cre­ate an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion — with an equal num­ber of Democrats and Repub­li­cans — to han­dle re­dis­trict­ing, in­stead of let­ting law­mak­ers in the Leg­is­la­ture draw their own dis­tricts.

“Hope­fully, this time we can get a hear­ing on it,” Clary said. “That’s ba­si­cally all you can hope for.”

The Pick­ens Repub­li­can says ac­tion is needed to en­sure re­cent prob­lems are cor­rected, com­par­ing today to the early ‘90s cor­rup­tion scan­dal that led to the ar­rest of sev­eral law­mak­ers and the last round of state govern­ment re­forms.

“It’s gen­er­a­tional cor­rup­tion at the State House,” Clary said. “There was Op­er­a­tion Lost Trust. Now, it’s this. What will the next gen­er­a­tion’s be?”

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