- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:

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July 20

The Greenville News on a dispute between Attorney General Alan Wilson and Special Prosecutor David Pascoe:

The South Carolina Supreme Court made the only logical ruling available last week in a dispute between Attorney General Alan Wilson and Special Prosecutor David Pascoe over whether Pascoe had the authority to empanel a state grand jury.

The dispute originated this spring when Wilson fired Pascoe, whom he had appointed to investigate alleged corruption in the state Legislature, when Pascoe attempted to initiate the grand jury probe. Wilson argued that only his office had the authority to begin such an investigation. He went on, paradoxically, to discredit Pascoe’s qualifications as a special prosecutor despite having praised Pascoe’s “credibility, professionalism and integrity” when he initially appointed him.

Rightly, the court ruled that by appointing Pascoe as a special prosecutor Wilson also was giving him the power to initiate Grand Jury proceedings. They also pointed out the most obvious logical flaw in Wilson’s very weak argument. Wrote Chief Justice Costa Pleicones, “Were we to hold that only the elected office holder is authorized to initiate a state grand jury investigation, then even where the Attorney General himself became the subject of an investigation, only he could initiate a state grand jury proceeding in the case against him. We conclude such a holding would lead to an absurd result.”

No doubt.

As we wrote back in April, the entire purpose of a special prosecutor demands that absent undeniable evidence of wrongdoing, he should not be prevented from seeing his investigation through to its logical end - in this case, charges issued from a grand jury or a determination that no corruption took place. If that is not allowed to occur, what would prevent an attorney general from firing a special prosecutor whose investigation was getting too close to the attorney general himself or his associates?

The very purpose of a special prosecutor is to remove politics from an investigation. Unfortunately, Wilson’s attempt to fire Pascoe and the ensuing battle injected politics into this probe and threatened to weaken this and all future special prosecutors. Fortunately, the Supreme Court in its 4-1 ruling saw through Wilson’s arguments and his probe can proceed. More importantly, the integrity of the office of special prosecutor has been preserved.

The court said that Pascoe had proved “by a preponderance of the evidence that the Attorney General’s Office in its entirety was recused from the redacted legislators investigation, and Pascoe was vested with the full authority to act as the Attorney General for the purpose of the investigation.”

To his credit, Wilson dutifully promised, through a spokesperson, that his office would respect the court’s ruling and abide by it.

Justice John Few dissented in the ruling, arguing the court should have considered whether Wilson had an actual conflict of interest in the investigation.

Respectfully, we disagree. Even if there were no current evidence of an actual conflict of interest, there often can be twists and turns in an investigation that lead to all sorts of places never foreseen by investigators. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for Wilson to assure any court that he had no conflict of interest in such an investigation given the nature and apparent scope of the probe.

If Pascoe was abiding by the laws overseeing the special prosecutor (and there’s no indication he was not), then Wilson’s integrity, the integrity of the special prosecutor and the Attorney General’s Office and the faith and trust of the citizens of South Carolina demand that the investigation run its course. The court’s ruling has cleared the way for that to happen.

Online:

https://www.greenvilleonline.com/

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July 18

The Aiken Standard on campaign finance transparency among state lawmakers:

South Carolina lawmakers received a lot of help from the automobile dealer lobby during the 2016 primary election season.

An Aiken Standard review of public records found that industry lobbyists have shelled out more than $227,000 so far in 2016.

More donations may start rolling in as the November general election season cranks into high gear. While the amount of donations is certainly noteworthy, it’s the timing that warrants a closer review.

Donations started in December 2015 at about the same time state lawmakers prefiled bills beneficial to auto dealers. Specifically, the bills make it easier for dealers to continue charging closing fees, countering a state Supreme Court decision in November that said dealers needed to itemize how fees were determined.

Closing fees, also called closing costs, add several hundred dollars to the final sales price of an automobile.

We’ve previously supported the public’s right to free speech to support any candidate of their choosing. One way to exercise that right is to contribute to their campaign.

We still support that right, even in the case of auto dealers. No laws were broken. However, the public also has a right to know who’s donating to a candidate’s campaign, especially if that support might potentially influence votes benefiting the donor or donor’s industry.

Lawmakers we were able to reach said the contributions didn’t influence their vote on House Bill 4548, which makes it easier for dealers to charge closing fees. From their perspective, their votes on H. 4548 corrected what they saw as judicial overreach by the Supreme Court. They say it was never the General Assembly’s intent to require a penny-for-penny itemization of closing fees.

H. 4548 merely clarified legislative intent in the original law, said Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, who voted for the bill.

Other lawmakers said their donations didn’t arrive until after H. 4548 and S. 911, a similarly-worded Senate bill, were introduced. That is correct.

But in many cases, lawmakers in both houses received donations while the closing fee bills were working their way through each chamber.

S. 911 was referred to committee, where it languished.

As for H. 4548, House members voted 98-7 in favor of it on Feb. 23. The Senate followed suit, approving it by a 42-0 vote on May 17, legislative records show.

Eleven House members and 10 senators reported auto dealer-related contributions in their January reports with the S.C. Ethics Commission, records show.

In April, 11 state senators reported receiving additional donations in the preceding weeks, documents state.

While perfectly legal, donations from the auto dealer lobby illustrate the Palmetto State has a long way to go when it comes to campaign finance reform.

Our investigation of S.C. Ethics Commission filings found numerous instances in which donors gave as individuals and also under a corporate name, a common loophole in South Carolina’s campaign finance laws.

State law also permits family members of donors, including the automobile industry, to donate as individuals - another loophole. Records indicate a few occurrences of this in practice, as well.

According to other ethics filings, some state lawmakers used vague terms to describe a donor’s profession, such as a “business person” or “business man.” In other cases, the donor’s profession isn’t stated at all.

In campaign finance, optics are everything. Even if there’s no quid pro, the appearance of one will resonate with voters.

Unfortunately, under the present system, the General Assembly still self-monitors when it comes to ethics. Unlike other public officials held accountable to the Ethics Commission, the House and Senate have their own ethics committees. They police themselves. An independent, third-party system of governance is necessary.

We want to emphasize that we have no objections to car dealers or their lobbyists contributing to campaigns.

Lobbyists in the trucking, waste management and the tourism industry are regular contributors, and they contribute frequently, according to ethics filings.

In the case of closing fee legislation, though, it’s certainly appropriate to let the public know who made political contributions when public policy was being crafted. The practice of charging closing fees is a contentious issue as illustrated by the sheer volume of donations candidates took in.

Online:

https://www.aikenstandard.com/

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July 14

The Post and Courier of Charleston on Charleston and improving relations between police and citizens:

Tim Scott’s position as a U.S. senator from South Carolina hasn’t given him a pass. Like many other black men, he has been stopped by police - seven times in one year alone.

So the conservative Republican is weighing in on the long-simmering question of what role racial bias has in policing.

It’s a question worthy of his time and effort - and requiring involvement of both police and the community.

Police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota last week ramped up that conversation across the nation, as did the shooting deaths of five police officers by a black man in Dallas who reportedly said he wanted to kill even more white people.

Fortunately, Charleston has been talking seriously about how to improve relations between police and citizens - particularly black citizens - for 10 months as its Illumination Project has heard from about 750 residents during listening sessions.

Chief Greg Mullen said, “I am tired of the death. I am tired of the hurt. I am tired of worrying every minute every day about who is going to be the next person killed in a police encounter.”

Already his department has made a few encouraging changes to improve communication and foster trust between officers and members of the community:

New recruits have been working with summer youth camps.

All but 10 percent of police policies are accessible on the department website.

And the department is developing a four-hour course to help citizens understand its procedures.

The Illumination Project is expected to present five goals and strategies next week to a citizen steering committee. They will be discussed publicly and taken to Charleston City Council in October, if all goes as planned.

North Charleston, shaken by last year’s shooting death of Walter Scott, who was black, by a white police officer, is also in search of answers. It has asked the Justice Department to review its policing practices to identify ways they could be improved.

President Barack Obama has taken up the cause. And South Carolina law now calls for police to wear body cameras.

Meanwhile, demonstrators across the country are continuing to demand change.

The overarching goal of establishing a trustworthy, mutually respectful relationship between police officers and citizens is the right one to pursue in this diverse community. Law enforcement officers need tools and insights to be effective and fair. Citizens need reason to trust that officers are doing their best to be equitable in the way they enforce laws.

Not doing this work of healing could be dangerous to individuals and to the community at large, if anger and distrust were to boil over.

Charleston and North Charleston both avoided violence in the wake of racially charged tragedies. Now both communities must be assured that their police departments will move forward with changes necessary to promote racial harmony.

Online:

https://www.postandcourier.com/

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