We are living at a moment of widespread cynicism about politicians, a time when ordinary voters suspect that the people they elect are rewarding friends and lining their own pockets. That’s bad enough. What’s worse is when the public comes to tolerate such behavior as part of the status quo. This appears to have happened in South Carolina.
In 2014, Bobby Harrell, who had been the state House speaker, pleaded guilty to six charges of using campaign funds for personal benefit. The following year, former state Sen. Robert Ford pleaded guilty to ethics violations based on misusing campaign funds. Such practices were widespread. In 2015, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and the Charleston Post and Courier found that dozens of lawmakers had used more than $100 million in campaign funds for questionable purposes over a period of several years.
Now state Rep. Jim Merrill faces 30 counts of soliciting or receiving money from groups with an interest in pending legislation. He has denied the charges. His lawyers, who include a legislator from the other party, called the indictment “flawed” and insisted the private-sector work he was paid for was “completely legal and legitimate.”
But for political observers in the state, it was hard to avoid seeing his case against the backdrop of recent convictions. It’s widely expected that Merrill’s indictment won’t be the last. “There probably is going to be at least one more indictment, but there may be more than that,” says John Crangle, the head of Common Cause in South Carolina.
Last year, the legislature passed a bill to address problems with reporting private sources of income, but watchdog groups said it contained too many loopholes to have much effect. “They are not the kinds of changes that would make South Carolina lawmakers more accountable to the public,” complained the South Carolina Policy Council, a think tank in Columbia that focuses on limited government.
South Carolina isn’t the only state to suffer a cluster of corruption cases. New York hasn’t completed a session without a legislator being indicted or resigning in disgrace since back in 2002. Still, the unpleasant truth is that despite a history of legislative and executive corruption in South Carolina stretching back many years, the public there has been willing to tolerate and even reward politicians who are operating under legal clouds. Ethics never seem to rise high enough on the public’s radar to be a pressing issue in the way that roads and schools always are. “The public doesn’t seem very much concerned about it,” Crangle concedes. “I’ve lived here since 1963, and one of the things I’ve noticed in the general population is a tolerance for abuse of office by people in local and state government.”
South Carolina legislators seldom if ever get calls from constituents complaining about the latest ethics scandal, so perhaps it’s understandable if they conclude that they can get away with a lot of shady stuff. Practically anything, perhaps -- as long as they don’t attract the attention of prosecutors.