Legislators and Gov. Henry McMaster said Wednesday they want to see the state toughen its ethics laws in the wake of a grand jury report into corruption at the S.C. State House.
Grand jurors called for a number of reforms in the report, including eliminating “dark money” and defining the difference between lobbyists and consultants.
That report said a “weakness” in S.C. laws allowed major S.C. institutions to pay GOP consultant Richard Quinn Sr. to exert his influence at the State House without ever disclosing his aid, the state grand jury said in its report Tuesday.
The General Assembly, meanwhile, has “failed” to pass legislation that would expose donors behind so-called “dark money” — money from unknown sources — that is spent to influence elections and sway S.C. voters, the 270-page report also said.
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“It is shocking that this has gone on,” said state Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens, who, last year, proposed a handful of bills that would have closed loopholes — for example, requiring politicians to disclose which special interests give them money — in the state’s ethics laws.
But those proposals went nowhere, never receiving a committee hearing.
“It certainly reinforces what I’ve been talking about the last four years,” Clary said Wednesday. “We need to strengthen our ethics laws.”
The State House corruption probe report details how political consultant Quinn used his consulting business — Richard Quinn & Associates — and legislative network, which included his son, disgraced state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, to kill or pass legislation on behalf of his corporate and institutional clients, in what special prosecutor David Pascoe described as “pay-for-influence schemes.”
The state grand jury report suggests the Legislature strengthen the state’s ethics laws, then enforce them, including strengthening the state Ethics Commission.
Two years ago, the state took steps to toughen the state’s ethics laws.
Those moves included a new law removing the House and Senate ethics committees from investigations of serious allegations against lawmakers. Now, those investigations are handled by the Ethics Commission.
“All ethics laws have one goal,” said Lynn Teague of the S.C. League of Women Voters. “To see to it that the people making decisions for our government are making those decisions in the public’s interest, not in their self-interest.”
The SC. ‘code would not apply to him’
Quinn Sr, 73. — described as a GOP political “godfather” — profited off his decades-old consulting firm offering “an insider’s access to legislative matters” to major corporations and institutions, the state grand jury report said, in a relationship that often “blurred the line” between consulting and lobbying.
Five institutions — including Cayce-based utility SCANA and the University of South Carolina — acknowledged in the report they used the Quinn firm. Meanwhile, the Quinn firm paid lawmakers to move or stop legislation.
But those institutions never disclosed Quinn’s activities, saying, according to the report, “that’s not what they paid him to do.”
Absent Quinn voluntarily reporting that he was lobbying, the state grand jury said, the Ethics Commission would have no mechanism to find and punish Quinn. The “code would not apply to him,” the report said.
As a result, the state grand jury said it is nearly impossible for the Ethics Commission to enforce the law, noting there is no clear distinction between the activities of a political consultant versus a corporate lobbyist.
“The State Ethics Commission cannot prove the intent behind a wink and nod,” the state grand jury wrote.
The report also suggests the four-year statute of limitations on criminal prosecutions for violating the state’s lobbying laws is an “impediment to enforcement” and should be removed. The state’s penalties for such violations also are too weak, the report said.
New ‘ammunition’ on ethics reform
State lawmakers and advocates for ethics reform said Wednesday they are ready to see action on “dark money.”
“South Carolina has some of the weakest laws in the United States,” said Teague of the League of Women Voters. “The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision makes clear it is constitutional to require the disclosure of donors.”
But passing legislation to overturn state law on dark money will be a tough fight, said state Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. However, he said, “dark money (disclosure) is something we definitely ought to push for.”
Last year, state Rep. Clary and state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, pushed legislation to make campaign contributions more transparent. The bill went nowhere. “This gives us more ammunition in making the argument” to push that bill again, Clary said.
Clary said ethics-related bills should have a stronger chance to pass in 2019. Currently, the House’s Judiciary Committee does not have a chairman. But State Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, is the favorite to take that seat.
“When you look at Peter’s track record ... he is a stalwart for doing things the right way,” Clary said.
Should lawmakers ignore the report and refuse to pass reforms, it will be a failure for the Legislature, lawmakers said.
“When you look at everything that’s transpired, this whole episode should be instructive to us that we need to change the way we’re doing things in South Carolina,” Clary said.
Gov. McMaster has backed strengthening the state’s ethics laws.
On Wednesday, McMaster — who was appointed by former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley to co-chair an ethics reform task force in 2012 — said he wants to require more special interests to register as lobbyists and strengthen the Ethics Commission.
Asked if he agrees with other S.C. GOP leaders who have said the grand jury report and special prosecutor’s investigation was a hit job, aimed at hurting Republicans, McMaster said he thinks it has been a fair process.
“From what I know, it has proceeded along the path that one would expect from a grand jury investigation.”