SC could make great strides in disclosure if lawmakers will act

info@islandpacket.comApril 16, 2013 

The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them. --Patrick Henry

In order for a democracy to thrive, there must be transparency.

AARP believes that government officials and institutions must avoid conflicts of interest and the undue influence of special interests in the performance of their responsibilities. Ethical standards and safeguards must be in place and enforced to ensure the integrity of government decision making.

Democracies require openness and honesty in government. Nonetheless, the potential for secrecy or lack of accountability persists.

Public accountability is unattainable unless elected officials and government appointees are committed to implementing and enforcing evenhandedly the laws and regulations for which they are responsible.

AARP's policy, developed by our National Policy Council volunteers, states that government at all levels should establish and adequately fund independent nonpartisan commissions to create and enforce ethics and lobbying regulations.

Public officials should provide early financial disclosure as a first step in guarding against conflicts of interest.

The South Carolina legislature continues to study and debate the most effective measures to improve the state's ethics laws. Expanding and strengthening disclosure of personal and family income, assets and debts must be an integral part of any successful attempt at ethics reform.

At present, South Carolina requires that candidate and incumbent public officials report only salaries and wages from public government entities. However, compensation from private sources is also very important, and is often channeled through consulting contracts to officials or through payments to businesses owned by and benefitting officials.

If the bills now before the General Assembly are not amended, the source of that compensation will continue to be hidden from the public. In order for voters to adequately assess whether compensation creates a potential conflict of interest for public officeholders, the legislature must mandate more fulsome reporting of all sources of public and private income. South Carolina should explicitly require disclosure of the name and address of each governmental entity, corporation, partnership, joint venture, sole proprietorship, association, union, or other business or commercial entity from which compensation has been received in any form. To ensure that the source of payments is not hidden by payment through a business owned in whole or in part by a public official, payments to such businesses must also be disclosed.

In addition, South Carolina has different filing requirements for incumbents and challengers for public office. Inadequately knowledgeable volunteers in political parties actually handle the filing process, adding to the confusion. As a result, more than 200 candidates for public office failed to file their statements properly in 2012, and many were removed from the ballot as a consequence. The process is not only confusing, but is viewed by many as susceptible to political party influence and can give the impression that incumbents are favored over challengers.

Several pending bills are aimed at addressing these problems. Senate Bill 2 makes the filing process uniform and clear and also places responsibility for the filing process in the hands of the public elections office rather than party officials. This bill deserves public support.

Senate bill 338 and House bill 3772 extend personal economic disclosure requirements to all sources of public and private "income," but still do not capture important compensation sources that create conflicts of interest. Those bills do not require disclosure of the sources of income from fees earned by independent contractors or payments made through businesses owned by officials. State lawmakers should be prodded to draft legislation that requires candidates and public office holders to disclose all compensation received in any form, whether from government or private sources and whether payments are made directly to them or to a business that they own.

At a time when public trust in elected officials appears to be at its nadir, South Carolina could greatly enhance confidence in our elected officials through real reform of our income disclosure requirements.

Jane Wiley is state director of AARP South Carolina.

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