South Carolina editorial roundup: Friday, Jan. 14, 2022


Post & Courier

Jan. 12

Give S.C. Ethics Commission investigators, and make sure they do their job

South Carolina's Ethics Commission has always been the redheaded stepchild of state government: It's an agency the Legislature feels obligated to have but doesn't really want doing its job too well.

And yes, we realize that some - perhaps even most - legislators care deeply about government ethics. But enough feel just the opposite to ensure that the agency has never had the investigative or enforcement tools or staff that it needs to provide an effective deterrent to self-dealing.

So we welcome Gov. Henry McMaster's effort to change that.

Mr. McMaster proposes adding $1.7 million to the agency's budget to hire more investigators. That doesn't sound like a lot in a year when lawmakers have nearly $1 billion in additional recurring revenue to cover inflation and pay for new services and employees, but it would double the annual state funding for the agency. (The commission receives another $500,000 in fines and lobbyist registration fees.)

The agency has a huge paperwork mandate: It's tasked with keeping tabs on annual economic interest reports from nearly every elected and appointed official in the state, and it compiles campaign reports at least four times a year from most every state and local candidate. But only four of its 18 employees are investigators. If lawmakers approve this proposal - and they should - they need to ensure that the additional money goes entirely to hiring more investigators, something that's implied but not directly required by Mr. McMaster's proposal.

Additionally, the governor proposes to nearly triple the budget of the office of inspector general - a newer addition to our state's good-government arsenal but also one that most legislators were never that excited about - adding $1.5 million to its $875,000 budget. That agency doesn't have the same record-keeping demands, so its eight employees are able to spend almost all of their time on investigations. The idea of three times as many investigators should be daunting to government officials who use their positions to benefit themselves at the expense of the public.

Simultaneously, the governor wants to expand the mission of both agencies, extending the state's lobbying law to cover people who lobby local governments and giving the inspector general authority to investigate claims of waste, fraud and abuse by school districts as well as other state and local governments, not just state agencies.

Both expansions are warranted and overdue - something The Post and Courier's Uncovered investigative series reminded us of over the past year, as it exposed case after case of abusive spending practices at the local level, along with too-cozy relationships between those who were paid to influence local decisions and those making the decisions.

But expanding the agencies' jurisdiction will reduce the impact of the additional funding. That might not be a problem for the inspector general, which isn't a primary enforcement agency but was envisioned to uncover problems that were being overlooked by enforcement agencies. The Ethics Commission, on the other hand, is charged with enforcing the state's ethics and campaign finance laws, and it has nowhere near the staff it needs to do more than cursory reviews in most cases.

Beyond that, the Ethics Commission needs more than just additional staff to do its job well. It also needs an attitude adjustment that might be delivered through clearer authority and enforcement tools and might require changes in personnel.

Consider the allegations in a federal lawsuit that was filed last year challenging the state's ethics gag law.

In motions filed last month, Senate President Tom Alexander and House Speaker Jay Lucas argued that the gag law doesn't actually prevent people from talking about their concerns regarding unethical behavior just because they've filed an official ethics complaint, as the anonymous plaintiff alleges. We think the lawmakers are correct, but the plaintiff argues that the Ethics Commission hasn't contested his understanding of the law.

Indeed, the commission's warnings to people who file ethics complaints are written in such a way that most people would not recognize that all they are prohibited from discussing is the existence and status of their ethics complaint - not the underlying misconduct behind it. And it's hard to see what such language accomplishes but to deter complaints, and to make it more difficult for all of us to tell whether the commission is dismissing complaints appropriately or sweeping serious violations under the rug.

A federal court will eventually agree or disagree with our legislative leaders about what the gag rule means, but when lawmakers discover that a state agency thinks a law means something different from what the Legislature thinks it means, it's time to change the law. That should happen with the gag law, which needs to be rewritten to clarify its extremely limited scope - and that nothing about it prevents anyone from talking about what they believe to be violations of the state ethics act.

Meantime, legislators need to make it clear that - regardless of whether this interpretation and the larger problem of the commission's less-than-aggressive approach to investigating and enforcing the law reflect a too-lax approach to the job or simply frustration - they expect a more aggressive approach. And they need to ensure that approach will be realized, not only with more staff but also with new enforcement tools, from mandatory random audits to tougher penalties for violators. After all, the toughest-looking ethics law in the country does no good if officials know they're going to get only a slap on the wrist for violating it.

Times and Democrat

Jan. 9

S.C. State has something else to celebrate

On Dec. 18, South Carolina State University made major sports news with a victory over Jackson State and coach Deion Sanders in the Celebration Bowl. The win sealed the HBCU national championship for the Bulldogs.

Now as another team of Bulldogs, these from Georgia, and Alabama get ready to play in the College Football Playoff national title game, the Orangeburg Bulldogs are again in the spotlight with some comparisons.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Pulitzer finalist, 10-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists and a 2018 winner from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists for his work for The Undefeated, an ESPN platform for exploring the intersections of race, sports and culture.

Jackson writes it may be unrealistic to consider SC State or Jackson State facing a Georgia or Alabama for the national title, but when it comes to graduating Black players, SC State and Jackson State are just as good as teams in the CFB Playoff.

"In my 26th annual Graduation Gap Bowl, SC State and Jackson State had NCAA Graduation Success Rates (GSR) of 87% and 85% for Black players. That is on par with the 94% for Black players at Michigan, the 84% at both Alabama and Cincinnati, and smokes the embarrassing 55% at Georgia.

"Those rates at Jackson State and SC State are doubly impressive because historically Black college and university (HBCU) athletic departments have a fraction of the resources of predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Georgia's athletic department staff directory has 25 people listed under student services - the vast majority involved in academic support. Alabama has 16 staffers listed under academics. Cincinnati lists 12 in academics. Michigan lists 11 under its academic success program."

Meanwhile, Jackson State lists five staffers for academics. And SC State lists only one.

Jackson introduces Melissa Dawson, SC State's executive associate athletic director of compliance and academic services, who tells him the success is built by creating a culture that compensates for lack of resources, as athletes utilize the same pool of tutors available to all students.

"It's just constant communication," she said the day before SC State beat Jackson State 31-10 in the Cricket Celebration Bowl.

"It's the five-minute hallway conversation. It's making it clear to them they can ask questions and ask for help if they need it. It's those conversations that help them see the big picture down the line of why they need to get their education," Dawson said. "It's not about how many people you have on your academics staff. It's how you affect the students."

While the NCAA has no rules to hold schools accountable for racial disparities, Dawson, who has worked in academic support at Power 5 schools such as Kentucky and South Carolina, which happen to have Black graduation rates of 84% and 90%, respectively, for their football teams, praised her Power 5 and mid-major colleagues around the nation who use their resources to focus on success rates. "It takes tireless energy," she said.

"Everyone thinks it's easy at a program that has the money. But in the background, people are putting in 60-, 70- and 80-hour weeks to make sure the kids have a great experience.

"If we can get them to a place where football is a vehicle, that's a great place to be. If pro football becomes an extra piece of the puzzle, that's fine. But the biggest thing we're going to celebrate is the degree."

In a top 25 for Black Graduation Success Rates made from this season's bowl teams, S.C. State and Jackson State would be nationally ranked, with the Bulldogs tied for 14th and Jackson State tied for 21st.

As Jackson concludes: "Given how they create a culture for success in under-resourced environments on small budgets, and how HBCUs are traditionally marginalized by the NCAA, this is indeed something to celebrate."

The Index-Journal

Jan. 11

It's about restoring people's faith and accountability

South Carolinians should applaud Gov. Henry McMaster's budgetary push to make government more accountable and, it is hoped, give taxpayers and residents alike a renewed faith in the people overseeing government's goings-on.

A preview of the governor's executive budget, which he unveiled Monday, was shared with The Post and Courier's reporter, Avery Wilks, last week.

In his budget, McMaster is proposing more than doubling the budgets of the State Ethics Commission and Office of Inspector General. Doing so will enable both governmental watchdog agencies to hire more investigators and, just as important if not more so, enforce laws already in place that are often met with warnings and minimal fines doled out when violated.

As Wilks reported last week, the State Ethics Commission has a paltry 18 staffers to monitor campaign spending and fundraising, investigate misconduct complaints lobbed against politicians and public officials and keep track of lobbying activity at the Statehouse. Of the 18 staffers, only four are actual investigators - hardly enough when considering the rampant violations revealed in reporting this past year by The Post and Courier and its 17 partner newspapers.

And then there is the Office of Inspector General, which has only eight people in its agency to investigate "fraud, abuse, waste and misconduct within the state's 106 executive agencies," as reported last week.

Imagine, if you will, that the Greenwood Police Department and Greenwood County Sheriff's Office each had just one person to patrol and investigate crimes. That obviously is not an apples-to-apples comparison, but surely you can see the plight these two state watchdog agencies are in. Frankly, one has to wonder if doubling their budgets and hiring ability is adequate still, but it has to be of some help if approved.

There will be wrangling by the state's lawmakers as it pores over the governor's proposed 2022-23 budget, which is expected to grow by about $900 million and provide more than $2 million for spending on one-time projects.

Which leads us to this: If any single lawmaker opposes these two line items the governor is proposing, cast a wary eye their way, for they are either OK with the rampant fraud, criminal activity and ethics violations witnessed throughout our state or they are oblivious to it. Neither one of those is even remotely acceptable or excusable.