COLUMBIA – Gov. Henry McMaster wants to beef up a pair of watchdogs that investigate government misconduct, make the Palmetto State’s scandal-scarred sheriffs attend ethics training, and shine more light on special interests that secretly influence city and county councils.
The Columbia Republican will package those proposals into his soon-to-be-unveiled executive budget, calling on lawmakers to spend some $3.4 million more per year on measures meant to repair South Carolinians’ faith in their government.
The governor’s agenda would tackle some of the problems exposed over the past year by Uncovered, a project in which The Post and Courier has teamed up with 17 other newspapers across the state, including The Voice of Blythewood & Fairfield County, to investigate public corruption and expose the systems of oversight that fail to hold politicians accountable.
More than 120 S.C. public officials have been arrested on criminal charges related to their government work over the past seven years, the investigation found. The state’s sheriffs keep getting arrested for breaking the laws they swore to uphold – more than a dozen have been charged with crimes while in office since 2010. But as newspapers and other watchdogs have declined, many other officials in small-town South Carolina have evaded scrutiny.
The Legislature expects the state budget to grow by nearly $900 million next year and will have nearly $2.2 million to spend on one-time projects, making McMaster’s request a drop in the bucket.
“The governor doesn’t think there is any more worthy investment than making sure government is more accountable to the people and transparent,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes told The Post and Courier.
McMaster’s proposed budget would more than double the budgets of the State Ethics Commission and Office of Inspector General, giving the pair of government watchdogs more money to hire investigators and enforce laws that are already on the books.
The State Ethics Commission has a staff of just 18 to monitor campaign spending and fundraising, track lobbying activity at the Statehouse, and investigate complaints of misconduct against politicians and public officials.
In part because it Pennsylvania payday loans employs just four investigators, the agency has historically let public officials off the hook with warnings and minimal fines after investigations that sometimes disregard serious allegations, an Uncovered investigation found last year. And even when it does fine politicians, it has trouble forcing them to pay up, another Uncovered story revealed.
The Office of Inspector General, an eight-person agency, also has its hands full with investigating fraud, abuse, waste and misconduct within the state’s 106 executive agencies.
Led by former FBI investigator Brian Lamkin, the agency typically fields hundreds of complaints a year against state employees and programs. In one high-profile case last year, the Inspector General’s Office determined that a former state agency executive director helped her husband win a $600,000 contract with her agency.
In another, the office investigated and scolded the Governor’s School for Agriculture at John de la Howe after an Uncovered report first revealed ethical breaches and questionable spending there.
Currently, political operatives who are paid to influence decisions at the Statehouse have to register as lobbyists with the Ethics Commission
In addition to giving the Inspector General’s Office at least three more investigators, the governor also wants to expand the agency’s jurisdiction beyond just state agencies, his office said.
The governor’s proposals come ahead of a budget cycle where lawmakers will have a mountain of cash to spend
McMaster will support efforts to empower the office to investigate any agency or group that gets state tax dollars, his office said. That includes school districts, cities, counties – even nonprofits that get state grants.
The state’s 170 legislators haven’t seen the governor’s proposed budget yet. But two necessary allies, the chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees, told The Post and Courier they support the idea of strengthening the Ethics Commission and Inspector General’s Office.
“I’ve spent my entire Senate career fighting for efficiency and accountability in government,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Harvey Peeler, a Gaffney Republican who was first elected to the Senate in 1980. “While I haven’t seen the details of the governor’s proposals, they will be strongly considered if they lead to those two items.”
McMaster also wants the state’s 46 sheriffs to undergo annual ethics training, a response to a steady stream of arrests and criminal convictions of the state’s top lawmen.
The Post and Courier’s 2019 series “Above the Law” showed that one in four of South Carolina’s counties in the past decade had seen their sheriffs arrested for breaking laws. By the end of that year, three more sheriffs had been indicted and removed from office. In all, 15 sheriffs since 2010 have been arrested on charges ranging from drug dealing to driving under the influence.
Ex-Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood is currently awaiting sentencing after his federal conviction on corruption and abuse of power charges. Meanwhile, Marlboro County Sheriff Charles Lemon was indicted last month and suspended from office on charges of ordering a deputy to repeatedly jolt a suspect with a Taser in the county jail.
The governor’s budget requests $200,000 to pay for the training. It also calls for a public listing of which sheriffs attend and which skip out.
House budget committee Chairman Murrell Smith said he likes that idea. The Sumter Republican would even support expanding ethics training to all public officials across the state.
Smith, a lawyer, noted that even after graduating law school and passing the bar exam, attorneys are required to receive regular training. He thinks politicians should do the same, especially in an age where technology has made it easier than ever for everyday taxpayers to scrutinize elected officials’ dealings.
“There is more scrutiny on people about their ethics than there was 20 or 30 years ago,” Smith said. “It’s time for us to make sure that we put more emphasis on ethics and compliance and training.”
McMaster’s ethics agenda also calls for more scrutiny of local government. But no such requirement exists at the local levels. That allows businesses and special interests to wine and dine city and county council members free of oversight.
As he has in the past, McMaster will call on lawmakers to close that loophole by requiring local lobbyists to register with the state.
McMaster’s executive budget is just the first step in a long legislative process where proposals can be fine-tuned or outright rejected. The governor can also make his case at the Jan. 19 State of the State address, a speech in which governors typically tout their achievements and lay out their priorities for the year ahead.