When I was a young boy growing up and my mother confronted me with something that I knew I had done wrong, I often stammered around, making excuses and trying to avoid fessing up. My mom’s response was always the same: “Let’s begin by just telling the truth.”
When it comes to the recent statehouse debacle over so-called “ethics reform,” they should simply follow mom’s wisdom — let’s begin by just telling the truth.
After months of pious speeches, posturing, promising, proposing and the appointment of yet another committee, ethics reform failed in the legislature. Nothing at all was passed.
The Governor, Senators and Representatives — of both parties — are all making excuses and stammering around about why real ethics reform failed, with each party blaming the other, the Legislature accusing the Governor, and most everyone saying that the presumed gubernatorial showdown next year between Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Vincent Sheheen somehow got in the way of everything.
All of this might be true, and none of it matters.
If the legislators and governor want real ethics reform, they can and should just act on their own. Why wait around for legislation that has certain language and certain exceptions — and all the carefully-crafted loopholes that they often use to hide more than they reveal?
If they sincerely want to be honest and tell the truth, they should just do it. They should just release the relevant personal financial disclosure information to the public (as, say, a supplemental filing with the State Ethics Commission), regardless of what the law may or may not require. It’s that simple.
And here is the information they should make public:
Income: Who pays you what? Simply list the income you receive and don’t hide it behind such things as “consulting contracts” or “law firm salary.” Come clean. List all the clients of your firm and how much they pay you. If you are a lawyer, you can and should respect the principle of client confidentiality, but the names and fees of all clients doing business with government must be fair game. Simply releasing tax returns is not near enough.
Assets, liabilities and holdings: What do you own, who do you owe money to and what significant financial transactions have you done? These are simple questions — and hiding them behind family members, business partners and shell corporations is not acceptable.
Business with government: Are you making money off of contracts and business deals with government — local, state or federal. If you or any company that you have substantial interest in gets a government check for anything — report it.
Business with those you appoint: Legislators vote to confirm judges and others to government positions — and then turn around and do business with or represent clients before them. Don’t do it. Simply don’t take the cases or the clients that put you or your firm or business in a position of conflict of interest.
No revolving doors or sweetheart deals: If you are legislators or work for the governor or a state agency, don’t take advantage of your position and relationships and turn around and do business with the state government you just left. Not as a lobbyist, consultant or representing clients. Wait at least three years.
Make all public business public: If the people of South Carolina pay your salary, provide you with an office and staff, pay for your computers, cell phones, and everything else you use to “do the people’s business” then it should all be pubic — everything. We paid for it, not you.
Any and every legislator can do this tomorrow. They don’t need a law, a special ruling or anything else. They can just do it — they can begin by just telling the truth.
The SC Policy Council has asked the legislators to do this, or at least part of it. They have asked the legislators to publicly disclose some of the information as outlined above on their website, www.SCPolicyCouncil.org. So far, only relative handful have done anything, anything at all.
None of them, none of the 165, have done the full disclosure as outlined above. None, not a single one.
The apologists for corruption will offer up all sorts of reasons and excuses as to why they don’t do this — none of it matters. The simple answer is they can — but they won’t.
If you want to be an attorney and make money from the state, fine. If you have a business and want state contracts, wonderful — I wish you every success.
But if you want to be a legislator, if you want to hold a position of public trust, if you want us to elect you to work for us, to do the people’s business — then don’t make money from your “public service” and damn sure don’t hide it from us.
Public service should not be a private profit center — ever.
As my mom said, “Let’s begin by just telling the truth.”
— Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and is president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring change and reform to government and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org www.SCNewDemocrats.org.