Last Tuesday evening saw the first meeting of the state Commission on Ethics Reform. Created by Gov. Nikki Haley, the panel aims to correct what the governor calls the "vague and weak" ethics standards in South Carolina, where the "good ol' boy" network of backroom deals and shady practices is commonplace. The Ethics Reform Commission is a much-needed first step addressing those issues.
Even though South Carolina established the state Ethics Commission in 1975, there is a general feeling that the state's lawmakers and government officials are out of control. This is reflected both in the Palmetto State's low scores in a recent survey on government accountability and transparency from the Center for Public Integrity and in the fact that fewer citizens showed up for last Tuesday's meeting than either the press or the panel.
Some critics might argue that this perceived system of corruption and malfeasance is born out of human nature, which causes even the most well meaning public servant to act in a self-serving manner. However, it could also be that our public officials have a poor understanding of what is ethical and what kind of behavior is suspect and possibly even criminal.
On the state level, this is apparent in the case of Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell and his recent bout of bad press. The Charleston Republican used campaign cash to reimburse himself for expenses, including trips that he took on his private plane, and is unable to produce receipts or invoices detailing the spending. After The Post and Courier reported on the matter, Harrell claimed that he had lost some of the receipts during an office move. While a case needs to be made about whether or not Harrell knowingly violated campaign finance laws, Harrell's explanations for his failure to properly account for expenses point toward a simple failure on the speaker's part at even understanding what laws he broke.
Harrell isn't the only official who apparently has a difficult time figuring out what is ethical behavior and what isn't. There's Charleston County School District board member Chris Collins.
In case you missed it, Collins recently became embroiled in a small scandal over the fact that his church Healing Ministries Baptist Church Center leases the old Charlestowne Academy from the school district. In fact, it is difficult to call it a scandal, since the whole matter resolved itself nicely at the last school board meeting when the board voted unanimously to terminate the church's lease.
In this case, the problem is not that Collins may have abused the privileges granted to him by the school district's lease agreement. The problem here is that Collins voted on the issue of terminating the lease, and even though he voted to terminate the lease, his vote constitutes a conflict of interest. Even more troubling is the fact that Collins does not seem to understand why this is a problem.
According to The Post and Courier story on the vote, Collins stated he does not see how his vote could be a conflict of interest because he is a taxpaying citizen with the same rights as anyone else. That may sound like a reasonable sentiment except that not every taxpaying citizen sits on public boards casting votes that directly affect his or her affairs.
That is the essential definition of conflict of interest, one that Collins should be acquainted with as a member of a public board. The S.C. School Boards Association publishes a document that clearly lays out the need "to avoid conflicts of interest and to refrain from using my board position for personal or partisan gain." Upon election, new school board members are expected to take an orientation in the SCSBA's standards. Perhaps Collins, first elected in 2008, needs a refresher course.
Harrell and Collins are not alone, though. The state Ethics Commission, the one established in 1975, maintains a website with two decades' worth of advisory opinion. These opinions are generated whenever an ethics complaint is filed against a public official. Browsing the list of topics, one finds a disturbing number of opinions related to elected officials using public office for personal gain and for violations of campaign finance laws. Again, there's no reason to believe that any of these cases involved malicious intent, but that is really no worse than believing that all these cases result from ignorance.
As is often the case, hindsight — or in this case, oversight — is always 20-20, but the need for education and proactive measures to ensure that public officials are never on the receiving end of an advisory opinion would be a better solution.
With any luck, Gov. Haley's panel will fulfill her desire to educate not only lawmakers, but all South Carolina's public officials about the bounds of ethical behavior.