updated Feb. 23
Several ethics reform proposals before the General Assembly have activist groups on edge. Ethics legislation inspired a news conference held by the libertarian-leaning South Carolina Policy Council on Tuesday.
Advocacy groups fret one provision of a bill in the Senate could violate free speech and expose their donors to intimidation by policy makers. They came armed with what they thought was proof of attempts by officials to silence activists.
The provision would require groups trying to affect policy to disclose their donors if they aren’t trying to influence an election, but happen to mention a candidate, say critics.
“Transparency is for government, privacy is for citizens,” said Policy Council president, Ashley Landess.
Asked by reporters what these groups are hiding, Talbert Black replied, “nothing.” Black, who heads the South Carolina Campaign for Liberty, said the goal is to protect the group’s members from retaliation. He said something as basic as releasing a scorecard ranking politicians under the group’s standards could make the group accountable to electioneering communication.
The communication would have to be released 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election to require disclosure of donors. Black said that could silence groups for one-fourth of the year.
And political intimidation may sound extreme. But it happens, said Landess. She cited anonymous blogs attacking activist groups, though she wouldn’t say who she thought was behind them.
An ethical correspondence
The Policy Council also disclosed copies of correspondence between a private citizen, whose name had been redacted to protect his privacy, and Sen. Luke Rankin and Senate Ethics Committee staff. Rankin chairs the Senate Ethics Committee.
The letter questioned whether it was proper for a senator to pay for gasoline out of his campaign account. According to the State Ethics Commission, candidates are not allowed to pay for gas with campaign funds, but should keep a mileage log for reimbursement of travel expenses.
According to the response, containing Rankin’s signature, the accuser should present a notarized complaint, preferably with proof. The letter also instructed him not to disclose confidential information related to ethics complaints, as it could result in prosecution by the Attorney General.
A subsequent letter questioned Rankin’s use of campaign fund for charitable and organizational expenditures. The response, containing staffer, Leonard Odom’s signature, reiterated the warning from the previous letter and said Rankin’s expenditures appeared to be proper.
Rankin did not respond to an email and phone messages left at his Senate office on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Landess thinks the warnings amount to intimidation.
Shining a light
Black cited another example he likened to intimidation. Lawmakers tried an ethics reform proposal last session similar to this year’s legislation. It died at the last minute, but not before National Association for Gun Rights Activists asked lawmakers to kill it at the urging of the groups president, Dudley Brown.
The Policy Council’s news wing, The Nerve first reported in June that the former attorney for the State Ethics Commission, Cathy Hazelwood asked Brown to back off of his activism at the request of the Governor’s Office.
According to Hazelwood, Brown asked, why am I talking to you? I normally speak to governors.
“Clearly we weren’t going to make any headway on the issue of non-candidate committees, and the conversation was ever so brief,” said Hazelwood. She is now the Deputy Superintendent of the Legal Division at the state Education Department.
A spokesman for Haley’s office would not give comment over the phone and didn’t respond to an email requesting comment before publication.
Brown, who also thinks ethics reform proposals would force donor disclosure, called the legislation a transparent attempt to silence gun owners in South Carolina. Brown said it was inappropriate for Hazelwood to lobby on pending legislation. He told her that Gov. Nikki Haley could call him herself if she wanted to talk about the legislation. Hazelwood backed off after that, said Brown. “When you shine a light in the cellar the rats tend to scurry.”
Brown said his group will continue to be involved in the ethics debate in South Carolina.
Moving forward on ethics
Activists said other ethics bills would weaken income disclosure because of loopholes in the requirement for private income disclosure. Policy makers would also continue self-policing, according to Landess, who said lawmakers and many activists have a difference of opinion on what separation of powers means.
John Crangle thinks some measure of ethics reform will pass this year and that it will be an improvement on the state’s current ethics laws. But according to Crangle, who heads the state chapter of the taxpayer watchdog group, Common Cause, ethics in South Carolina has a long way to go.
Crangle wants to see stronger income disclosure requirements, whistleblower protections, and more transparency for sheriffs. He cited a list of South Carolina sheriffs who have been convicted in recent years, including Lexington County sheriff, James Metts, who pleaded guilty in December to harboring undocumented immigrants.
Crangle also wants to see an end to lawmakers investigating lawmakers and to the secrecy requirements associated with ethics complaints.
Landess is less optimistic. She said many of the proposals don’t move the state in a positive direction and are deliberately complex. “What we are concerned about is going backwards,” she said.
The House approved the bill to clarify electioneering communication, which is now before the Senate. Activists are also eyeing an all-encompassing ethics bill. The bill died in the Senate last week, but the groups fear lawmakers may resurrect the bill since it’s still early in a two-year session.