Back in January, a 25-mile chase involving Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon ended with Cannon slapping a handcuffed suspect in the back of a patrol vehicle. In August, Sheriff Cannon complied with an arrest order and went to the detention facility that bears his name and was booked on a charge of assault and battery.
Supporters of the police in general and Cannon in particular were either outraged or simply confused as to why the sheriff would plead guilty. Cannon was only doing his job, they said, and the suspect was lucky that all he received was a slap or two. However, even Cannon admits he acted “out of character.” Ultimately, he did the right thing.
While some might say the entire act of being charged, pleading guilty, and walking out of the detention facility consisted of little more than a public relations stunt to pacify his critics, there is still the sad fact that in America and particularly in South Carolina, Cannon did not have to do it at all. By merely accepting public responsibility for his actions, Sheriff Cannon raised the bar for transparency and accountability among public officials in this state.
Unfortunately, transparency and accountability get short shrift in South Carolina. Critics from both the right and the left often deride the “good old boy” network that shows an absolute contempt for both the public they serve and the rule of law. In recent months, stories of this sort have come and gone, and all too often they are forgotten before the public connects each individual story to the larger and more troubling narrative.
Take for example Gov. Nikki Haley. When she was running for office, she campaigned on the issues of transparency and accountability, yet she has failed to live up to her promises. In 2010, she was attacked for deleting e-mails and failing to provide the press with information that she is legally required to hand over. A few months ago, the governor’s office attacked The State newspaper for a story on whether Haley had used her influence to get her 14-year-old daughter a job at the Statehouse. What makes this particularly odd is the fact that The State had not yet run the story before the administration publicly criticized the newspaper.
More recently, The Post and Courier has reported that Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell used campaign funds to reimburse himself $325,000 for expenses but provided “no receipts or itemized invoices accounting for the spending as required by state law.” Harrell’s silence on the issue might be an aberration in some parts of the country, but in South Carolina, it seems to be standard practice. The speaker’s statement last Wednesday that he will “probably” be more specific in the future is not reassuring.
Meanwhile, a few weeks ago a judge dismissed a charge of hit and run resulting in a felony against a reserve member of DHEC. The driver allegedly struck a bicyclist and stopped only long enough to render basic aid, leaving before the police arrived on the scene. The judge dropped the charges because the man returned to the scene 40 minutes after he left. This creates the impression in the eyes of the public that anyone with ties to a government agency can seemingly sneak through the system, even when a fatality is involved.
In another recent case, the office of the former state Attorney General Henry McMaster apparently violated the Freedom of Information Act in an ongoing case regarding the estate of the late James Brown. McMaster’s office also faces accusations of surreptitiously assisting private attorneys in filing motions to silence an independent journalist covering the case.
These examples of bad behavior from public officials cast a pall over all that goes on inside government. It is no wonder that so few people have faith in their public institutions. Taken individually, these cases seem like independent issues. However, they are part of a larger problem with many governmental bodies today. Almost all of them involve some permutation of misdirection and excuses — “it is a complicated legal case,” “attorney-client privilege,” “I didn’t do anything wrong because I said I didn’t” — and together they point to the much larger problem of a broken system that allows public servants to ignore the public they ostensibly serve.
Whatever your beliefs about the government’s role in society may be, one thing that should be commonly agreed upon is a baseline of acceptable accountability to the public on issues related to governance and to those we entrust with that responsibility. A society that does not have a functional concept of the rule of law, particularly the idea that no one is above the law, is a society that cannot hope to sustain itself.