The Senate floor. Photo by Billy Hathorn.
It’s been nearly 25 years since the FBI caught the former South Carolina lobbyist, Ron Cobb trying to buy cocaine and used him to dismantle a ring of lobbyists and of lawmakers who sold their votes on a horse betting bill.
And while lawmakers tell us the atmosphere under the copper dome is cleaner in this post-Lost Trust era, some things never change.
As the French writer, Alphonse Karr put it, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
South Carolina hasn’t seen a scandal like Operation Lost Trust since 1990.
But the rules didn’t stop people from breaking the law then—taking or offering money in exchange for votes was already illegal.
And they don’t keep people from crossing the line now—whether deliberately or accidentally—despite stronger ethics laws the era ushered in.
Back then a handful of lawmakers accepted cash in exchange for their vote. Today lawmakers aren’t allowed to accept a cup of coffee from a lobbyist.
But the rules didn’t prevent former House Speaker Bobby Harrell from facing allegations that he misused campaign funds.
Whether Harrell crossed the line was for a jury to decide. A Richland County grand jury in September indicted him on multiple charges of misusing campaign funds and of misconduct in office.
Prior to pleading guilty in October, Harrell had maintained his innocence over allegations he misused campaign funds to fly a private plane. According to Harrell, he pleaded guilty to close the case on behalf of his family.
The scandal and a failed attempt last session at ethics reform are spurring lawmakers to again strengthen the state’s ethics laws that define a proper code of conduct by officials and lobbyists.
As lawmakers tweak ethics rules this year, and as officials renew the call to restore the public’s faith in government, we should keep a couple of things in mind—
First, we ought to monitor the people we elect, but we should temper that caution with reason. Boogeymen aren’t lurking behind every corner.
Second, many officials are just like you and me with one exception—they wield power. And while I doubt all official dealings are rife with mischief, human nature bearing the scepter of power should be kept in check.
Attempts by policy makers to restore the public’s trust aren’t in the best interest of the public.
The cures for public corruption can’t be written into law. They are sunlight and a healthy public skepticism.
Lawmakers are set to resume debate next week over how the state should police its most powerful people. We should let them know we’ll be watching.