If someone on Charleston City Council were to be under investigation by the State Ethics Commission right now, you would not know about it. Why? Because South Carolina law prohibits public knowledge of potential ethics violations by public officials, unless the commission’s secret vote deems the claims worthy. To put it bluntly: Transparency law in the Palmetto State is nothing more than reputation protection for state politicians.
For most legal questions, even those involving people in power, have the same starting rules. Any time a legislator or councilman is arrested for drunk driving, for example, an investigation is conducted. If a mayor rear-ends someone on Broad Street, the police are called, blue lights and all, to write a report. Guilty or not, the matter is public and the process runs its course equitably.
But if you file an ethics complaint against any elected official, the potential crime becomes secret — nobody with any knowledge of the complaint can discuss it, thanks to South Carolina’s secrecy protections for politicians.
The procedure for filing a complaint is simple enough: If someone suspects a public official is in violation of state law, he or she sends their concerns to the State Ethics Commission. The commission looks into the complaint and decides whether to bring formal action.
But state law keeps even the allegation of a possible impropriety under wraps until ethics commissioners meet — behind closed doors — to consider the facts. It’s all done in secret. It’s all done outside of the scope of public scrutiny, just to decide whether the complaint is legitimate enough to subject public officials to the same treatment they’d get for drunk driving or a wreck.
It should make you mad, this perverse concoction of hogwash, horsefeathers and cow manure.
What’s even more maddening is if someone dares disclose the complaint before it’s blessed by the commission, the law requires that the complainant face jail time or a fine. To top it off, if ethics commissioners decide the alleged misdeeds did not veer outside South Carolina’s broad ethics rules, the whole thing disappears and is stricken from the record.
Luckily, a lawsuit filed last month in federal court is challenging South Carolina’s opaque transparency rules. An anonymous whistleblower who had a complaint dismissed by the State Ethics Commission wants to tell the world about allegations that sound an awful lot like a textbook case of corruption. The commission even substantiated the whistleblower’s claim, but said it didn’t amount to a potential offense. But under state law, the anonymous person is sworn to confidentiality, even if it’s in the public’s interest to speak out.
“If this is the law in South Carolina, the public, the press and the General Assembly should know, first and foremost, so this massive loophole can be closed,” the Aug. 25 complaint reads.
Maybe one of your councilmen is under investigation right now. Maybe not. But shouldn’t you have the right to know about allegations against people who have submitted themselves to higher standards as public servants? Of course, particularly given the state’s lax ethics rules. Our politicians deserve scrutiny.
Change the law.