Report: South Carolina government is ripe for corruption

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 19, 2012 

WASHINGTON — South Carolina is among the states most ripe for corruption because of government secrecy, weak ethics enforcement, little disclosure of legislators' finances and low accountability for legislative and executive branch members, according to a nationwide analysis to be released today.

The report gives South Carolina failing grades in nine of 14 key categories, with the state faring especially poorly in public access to information and executive accountability.

South Carolina scored above average in just four areas – lobbying disclosure, procurement, redistricting procedures and internal auditing.

Overall, only five states rank lower than South Carolina in the study’s “corruption risk” index – Maine, Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota and Georgia. North Carolina was tied for 19th best, ahead of 29 states.

The report was based on an 18-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity; nonpartisan, good-government groups based in Washington.

Analysts interviewed hundreds of state officials and employees across the country, along with professors, lawyers, advocacy group leaders and others who have extensive experience with or knowledge of the governments in their states.

Each state was graded on 330 standards for its laws, regulations and enforcement in state civil service management, accountability of the executive, legislative and judicial branches, state budget processes and other key areas.

The study cited reporting by The State newspaper last November, revealing that emails among Gov. Nikki Haley and her staff had been deleted.

Citing “a pervasive antagonism toward the press at the upper reaches of government,” the report found: “There is no agency that enforces the Freedom of Information law or monitors the state government’s compliance with it. There is also no appeal process, relegating to the courts any problem a member of the public or press experiences in obtaining public information.”

Haley, a Lexington Republican and former state representative, dismissed the study’s conclusions.

“We’re continuing to make this the most transparent administration in history,” Haley’s spokesman, Rob Godfrey, told McClatchy. “Agenda-driven D.C. groups can say what they want, but the strides made in South Carolina under the administration are undeniable.”

Godfrey said Haley’s office has worked with state archivists to develop a records-retention plan. He said that she releases a detailed weekly public schedule, maintains a flight log updated in real time and posts news briefings online.

Haley, however, has been criticized for leaving fundraising events off her public schedule, including an Oct. 28 luncheon in Georgia hosted by a prominent Atlanta lawyer with ties to Georgia port officials. The ports of Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., are competing for federal funds to deepen their harbors.

S.C. Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat who lost to Haley in the 2010 gubernatorial election, said she has failed to make good on her campaign promises to open up state government to greater public scrutiny.

“During our campaign for governor, she was talking about transparency, but she hid behind a legislative exemption to refuse to turn over her legislative emails,” he said last week. “That approach has been continued while she’s been governor.”

Cronyism, patronage

The report released today said undue political influence in South Carolina extends far beyond the governor’s office.

“An undercurrent of fear and political interference bubbles throughout the state’s civil service, one that is shot through with cronyism and patronage,” said its section on South Carolina.

The report said there is little public accountability for members of the part-time General Assembly.

“Because of virtually nonexistent asset-disclosure laws in South Carolina, lawmakers are more than able to hide their wealth – and who is paying them – even when it would create a clear conflict of interest,” the study said.

Legislators have slashed funding for the State Ethics Commission from $725,000 to $284,000 since 1999, it said.

The agency “is these days understaffed, underfunded and widely thought to lack teeth,” the analysis found. “It has no jurisdiction over members of the Legislature when it comes to how they raise and spend their campaign cash once they are elected.”

Promoting training sessions in rules of conduct and conflicts of interest on its website, the State Ethics Commission currently notes: “Due to State budget cuts, the Commission must charge a fee to cover costs, to include mileage, lodging and materials.”

The report commended the commission for its probes of former Gov. Mark Sanford and former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, who resigned March 9 and received a $5,000 court fine for numerous campaign finance violations.

All states have political scandals, but few drew more national attention than Sanford’s extramarital affair with an Argentine former TV reporter, Maria Belen Chapur, which was revealed in 2009. The ethics panel fined Sanford in 2010 for using the state plane to carry on the affair.

Enforce existing laws

Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, said most states have adequate laws and regulations to combat corruption, but many lack the funds or political willpower to enforce them.

“We don’t need lots of new laws,” Buzenberg said. “Instead, let’s look at what’s on the books and enforce it better.”

S.C. Treasurer Curtis Loftis said he’s helping reform the S.C. Retirement Investment Commission, which oversees a $25 billion portfolio, by criticizing risky stock purchases and successfully fighting a move to remove him from the five-member panel.

“There is no problem in state government that transparency can’t solve,” Loftis said. “Transparency focuses the public on a problem. It immediately causes elected officials and bureaucrats to engage in public service, not self-service.”

Management of its state pension fund was one of the nine areas in which South Carolina gets a failing grade in the new study. It cited weak auditing of and public access to asset disclosures of the commission’s members and staff.

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