Spending questions point to flaws in law

As if we needed more reasons to beef up our state ethics laws, House Speaker Bobby Harrell just served some up.

The Charleston Republican did not itemize all of the spending from his campaign account. Most of the more than $325,000 in reimbursements since 2008 were for travel, portions of it in his private plane. Some came in five-figure lumps, without specifics on why, where and when the money was spent.

Harrell maintains he followed the law, but he also said he "probably will be more specific" on future disclosure forms.

The main problem is that South Carolina ethics laws don't ask enough of our public officials. And when officials are told to do something, enforcement often is weak. That's particularly true for lawmakers, who police their own.

Harrell's statement that he would do better came after a report in The (Charleston) Post and Courier about his spending and the lack of itemization. Despite repeated requests for invoices, receipts and any other documents to explain his spending, Harrell did not provide any.

After the report was published, Harrell showed to an Associated Press reporter invoices, phone bills, pay stubs and credit card bills that he said backed up his claims. But he wouldn't allow them to be copied, saying they also contained personal information. He recently moved $23,000 back to the campaign fund, acknowledging in a letter to the House Ethics Committee that a review determined he didn't have records for that amount. He blamed an office move.

The law requires those reporting to itemize expenditures on the required financial disclosure form and to retain receipts and other documentation for four years. The definition of "itemize" apparently is up for debate, although most of us know it when we see it.

Harrell might have hoped to score points for openness with the Associated Press interview, but it shouldn't take a special request or an interview to get the information. It should be available as a matter of course so that any interested person can match up receipts and reported spending. That's a failing in the law.

We've seen what too little oversight can bring with the truncated tenure of former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard. Ard pleaded guilty to four counts of unlawful reimbursement of campaign funds, two counts of failure to report on campaign documents and one count of using campaign funds for personal use. The Ethics Commission looked into Ard's spending and cited him for 106 violations; he paid more than $60,000 in civil fines and reimbursements as a result.

That investigation came after a reporter from The Free Times of Columbia raised questions about Ard's campaign spending and quoted him saying, "I've got a vast amount of my personal wealth tied up in this campaign, and I'm just trying to recoup as much of that as I can."

Look at the rationalizations and the "everybody else is doing it excuses" we witnessed in the investigation into Gov. Nikki Haley's actions when she was a House member, as well as the charade that was the House Ethics Committee inquiry.

Perhaps the most telling statement in the recent stories on Harrell came from that committee's chairman, Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken, who, the Post and Courier reports, has received at least $2,000 from a Harrell-affiliated political action committee: "I'm not trying to avoid the situation. You know I can't afford to talk about it. I can't talk about it."

The people of this state can't afford the ambiguity and laxity of our current ethics laws.

Harrell does himself no favors by holding back on releasing information that would document his spending. What's the point of requiring officials to keep receipts and invoices if they aren't made public? Attach them to the report. Make them available.

More importantly, lawmakers should stop pretending we have -- or they want -- "transparency" when neither is true.

Still, we're promised ethics reform in the next legislative session.

But enough with the politicking on pledges of transparency.

No state politician should ever again utter that word without backing it up with concrete actions that include meaningful changes to the law.