Agency Backtracks, Allows Public Release of SC Ethics Complaints
The South Carolina Ethics Commission has overturned a three-decade-old policy that barred anyone who files a complaint against a public official from talking about it unless the complaint is found to be valid.
This week’s ruling came after a whistleblower whose complaint was dismissed by the commission sued and said the secrecy violated free speech rights and unfairly silenced people who wanted to report wrongdoing.
South Carolina House and Senate leaders later filed papers in the lawsuit saying they never intended state ethics laws to silence whistleblowers, The Post and Courier reported.
The state Ethics Commission said in an advisory this week that it determined, after further review of the ethics law, that the confidentiality requirements only apply to the commission, and not to citizens who lodge complaints.
The commission has already revised its forms to remove a section that warned anyone filing an ethics complaint that they could face misdemeanor charges if they speak publicly about their allegations before the agency investigates them.
The previous policy also prevented complainants from speaking about allegations if the commission rejected them, even on a technical issue.
“For decades, the Ethics Commission has intimidated citizens into not speaking up about complaints they have filed,” said Chris Kenney, the attorney who filed the complaint. “This is a positive development in terms of freedom of expression and the right to criticize public officials and public bodies as well as the work of the ethics commission.”
Kenney told the Post and Courier he sued on behalf of a client who accused a state legislator of violating ethics laws by voting for a special interest who paid the Legislator $108,000 over three years through contracts with companies linked to the Legislator.
The state Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint after discussing it behind closed doors, saying the lawmaker taking money from a special interest affiliate did not affiliate it with the interest,
The client, who remained anonymous in the lawsuit because he didn’t want to break the law, wants to speak to lawmakers about toughening ethics laws so the conduct will be considered wrong. said Kenny.