The nine commissioners of the South Carolina State Ethics Commission have their hands full lately, what with all the recent headlines about public officials run amok. A mayor accused of taking a Florida freebie junket from a businessman that involved strip clubs and limousines. The state’s longest-serving sheriff indicted for accepting cash bribes in an envelope. A police chief accused of seizing video poker machines and selling them to a town councilman. A House speaker under investigation by an attorney general who can’t keep his own campaign finances straight.
Being a commissioner for the agency that regulates the ethics of public officials right now isn’t an enviable position.
Those nine commissioners — all of them relatively new — meet Wednesday morning to discuss the agency’s operations, consider advisory opinions and review other matters. And, according to a copy of their agenda, they’ll also discuss something else: media relations.
That might sound innocuous. But journalists and media representatives hope any change to how the agency deals with media will be one toward openness and not less transparency. The commission has been involved in recent dust-ups over the state’s FOI law, and faced a lawsuit from a government watchdog over it.
There have also been attempts to muzzle the agency’s staff, which those who remember them hope won’t happen again.
In 2011, two legislators who didn’t like some comments an ethics agency staffer had made in the press inserted language in a budget proviso to restrict future comments to media.
Bill Rogers, the director of the South Carolina Press Association, who plans to attend tomorrow’s meeting, says he hopes the agency’s own commissioners wouldn’t consider imposing a “blanket muzzle” on staffers.
“The Ethics Commission has in the past struck a good balance of protecting sensitive information and communicating to the public through the press,” Rogers says. “This is an important public agency and it needs to be as open as it can be.”
And Press Association attorney Jay Bender says public comments by Ethics Commission staff provide valuable information and context on ethical matters.
“The most important work of the Ethics Commission is the education of the public about the law and the process,” Bender says. “The history of the agency has been to encourage public comment by the director and counsel to explain in specific circumstances what is required by public officials. Without these comments, historically the agency would have been invisible and wholly without credibility. Of course, the counter history in South Carolina is that the ruling elites would
prefer not to be held to any standard of conduct beyond ‘we know what is good for you and we will do it.’”