Commentary: Sanford case is an opportunity for openness in ethics investigations

It would be a mistake to read the Supreme Court's refusal to hide the details of an ethics investigation of Gov. Mark Sanford as a sweeping victory for openness in government. But it also would be a mistake to overlook the potential it has to render ethics investigations just a little less secret than they always have been.

The utility of the court's ruling is limited because it merely addresses those investigations where the target has waived his right to confidentiality. Most people don't do that, and so the public never really can judge how well the State Ethics Commission does its job overall - or how well it does its job in most individual cases. In fact, the public still will never even know of the existence of those ethics complaints (by far the majority) where the commission decides no action is warranted. That won't change until the Legislature decides to change it - which it should do.

Moreover, the court pinned its decision to the governor's politically deceptive, self-congratulatory letter waiving his confidentiality. Mr. Sanford, the court said, used sweeping language that clearly meant he did not want any of the secrecy protections that the Ethics Commission had assured his attorneys he would get if he took that step. By his language alone, the court said, the governor authorized the public to see everything he is allowed to see - which by logical extension also should allow the public into any hearing in the matter.

But the court didn't stop there. The unanimous opinion essentially told the commission it couldn't continue to keep more secrets than state law authorizes.

To read the complete editorial, visit The State (Columbia, S.C.).