IS THERE A ‘CONTROLLING LEGAL AUTHORITY’ HERE?
In 1997, when Vice President Al Gore was questioned about suspicious campaign fund-raising activities, he claimed repeatedly that he didn’t know it was illegal. “My counsel tells me,” said the Vice President, “there is no controlling legal authority that says that is any violation of the law.” Whatever one thinks of Al Gore or his long-ago activities at a Buddhist Temple fundraiser – he may have been factually correct, after all, that there was no controlling legal authority over his doings – his notorious plea strikes us as descriptive of a conundrum we have right here in South Carolina.
Recently the Charleston Post and Courier published a story questioning the Speaker of the South Carolina House on a large number of campaign expenses for which he reimbursed himself. At issue was not the fact that the Speaker reimbursed himself $325,000 from his campaign account, but the fact that he has not documented these reimbursements in a way that would indicate to the public that these reimbursements were lawful.
So who decides whether the Speaker’s transactions and documentation meet the law’s demands? The House Ethics Committee would be a legal authority, but it has no de facto control. Even if the Committee could meet now (it can’t take up ethics allegations within fifty days before an election), its members simply aren’t in a position to conduct a serious investigation into the activities of the man who holds committee-assignment power and whose political action committee donates to their campaigns.
Perhaps sensing the absence of any controlling legal authority, the House and Senate caucuses have proposed the creation of “study committees” charged with presenting “strong ethics reform legislation.” Well, okay. But according to the Speaker himself, the purpose of these committees is to “help ensure the public that our ethics laws are being followed and enforced, therefore making it much more difficult for members to be unfairly attacked for actually complying with the law” (emphasis added). So the Speaker, at least, thinks the purpose to these new reforms would be to protect politicians, not to hold them accountable.
Hard to see how that would result in a controlling legal authority.
What about the Public Integrity Unit, recently proposed by the Attorney General? Apart from the fact that the proposal is hopelessly vague – “It will be a collaborative alliance of different agencies working together from day one” intended to “increase confidence in both state and local government,” etc. – it strikes us as a terrible and possibly unconstitutional idea. This Unit would be charged with “enforce[ing] ethics laws to the fullest extent,” but it wouldn’t be a “unit” so much as a consortium: a “collaborative effort” and a “partnership” including “the Attorney General’s office, the State Law Enforcement Division, the Department of Revenue, the State Ethics Commission, and the Inspector General’s office.” But powers of enforcement should be held by one branch or office over another – that’s the idea of checks and balances – not by a variety of agencies over “state and local government” in general.
Whatever else the Attorney General’s Public Integrity Unit might be, it’s not a controlling legal authority.
So leave aside your views of whether the Speaker is or isn’t culpable in the matter of campaign account receipts. Answer the question: what is the controlling legal authority in his case? Your comments welcome.