South Carolina is the kind of place where change only comes after a massive shock to the system. The state where the Civil War began takes threats to tradition seriously. During the early 19th Century, political disputes were settled at dawn with pistols. One governor, John Lyde Wilson, even wrote the definitive 1838 treatise on the subject: The Code of Honor, Or Rules for the Government of Principals and Seconds in Dueling.
Later means of battle included canes — like the one that pro-slavery U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks used to bash the skull of the abolitionist Charles Sumner in 1856 — and wrestling — like the moves that U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond put on Ralph Yarborough in 1964 in an attempt to prevent the pro-civil rights Texas senator from voting at a confirmation hearing.
South Carolina politics may be less violent today, but state legislators still cling tenaciously to doing things the old way – even when other states have moved on. South Carolina is one of only two states where judges are elected by the legislature and one of only a handful that don’t require public officials to disclose private income. As a host of reform advocates have said, South Carolina is still very much a “Wild West.”
So it’s no surprise that South Carolina earned a D- in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity, ranking the state 36th out of 50. That’s a marginal improvement from 2012, the first time the project was carried out, when the Palmetto State scored an F. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the project and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
The project also found that South Carolina has a particularly high “enforcement gap,” which measures the difference between what the laws say and how well they’re actually implemented.
In some cases, this is obvious. The law says you can’t use campaign funds to defray personal expenses. The reality is that former House Speaker Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty last year to misusing campaign funds for personal benefit.
The law gives citizens access to information, but legislators not only find ways to work around releasing documents, but also discourage people from requesting them – either by charging exorbitant amounts or threatening to punish people who make “excessive” requests.
After South Carolina received an F in 2012, the state seemed poised for change. Gov. Nikki Haley and legislators all said they were committed to reform— Haley even cited the State Integrity Investigation score in her 2013 state of the state address.
But it quickly became clear that change wouldn’t come easy. Numerous reform bills have gone nowhere—even with Harrell’s downfall, which many thought would finally spur change.
Haley’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article. Good-government groups say the grade seems fitting.
“The fact that the score has changed very little is appropriate,” said Lynn Teague, vice-president of the South Carolina League of Women Voters. “South Carolina still lacks effective ethics law.”
No brakes on political campaigns
South Carolina once had clear limits on the amount of money that people could spend on politics. But in 2010, a federal judge upended all of that when he ruled that the state’s definition of a political committee was “unconstitutionally overbroad.” The ruling effectively opened the floodgates to unregulated donations. While limits on contributions to candidates remain, donors are now free to give unlimited sums to political parties, committees and politically active nonprofits. What’s more, contributions to any of those entities aren’t even subject to mandatory disclosure.
In 2013, for example, a New York real estate investor named Howard Rich was able to give more than $150,000 to a couple of dozen candidates for state legislature, circumventing the $1,000 cap on donations to candidates by funneling the money through an array of limited liability corporations, according to a report by The State.
The flood of cash has only highlighted the state’s vague rules for how candidates can spend that money. When Harrell, the former House speaker, pleaded guilty last year to six counts of using campaign funds for personal purposes, he admitted to using the funds to reimburse himself for flights on his private plane that weren’t official business.
But he also told the court that he had “a fundamental disagreement over the proper use of a campaign account.” He was able to avoid jail by agreeing to give up his House seat, stay out of politics for three years, and cooperate with an ongoing investigation into corruption in the legislature.
Advocates saw the case as a clear sign that the state’s laws and oversight are inadequate.
“For years, the House and Senate were on public notice from Harrell’s disclosure forms that his use of political money was out of control,” wrote John Crangle, executive director of the advocacy group Common Cause South Carolina, in a column for the news website The Nerve. Despite the clear warning, he wrote, no one “took any official actions to try to stop Harrell’s abusive conduct.”
Not all bad news
South Carolina scored among the best in the nation for its internal auditing practices — which covers both the department responsible for the annual financial audit of state agencies, and the new Office of Inspector General.
The Inspector General’s office, created in 2012, is free to investigate any department of the administrative branch of state government. The office established a fraud hotline, and investigators quickly got to work digging into several troubled areas.
One of the office’s first reports showed that a majority of physicians aren’t properly monitoring drug prescriptions, and could lead to new safeguards to keep prescription drugs from falling into the wrong hands.
“I have broad latitude to go wherever I want, whenever I want and however I want,” said Inspector General Patrick Maley.
That ability makes the new office stand out from other state watchdog agencies. Both the ethics and elections commissions, for example, will respond to complaints, but they aren’t sufficiently funded to either perform regular audits or to initiate independent investigations.
This gap—along with the state’s lack of disclosure laws – has shielded the political process from close scrutiny, and kept the status quo securely in place.