At least according to his friends, Dr. Phil Wallace is an upstanding man who gives generously of his time and talents to his community. He might even have lost money on the contract he has had for years with the city of Dillon. Doubtless, like countless other elected officials, he also spends far more time attending to his duties as Dillon’s interim mayor than his City Council salary compensates.
For all of that, he is to be commended.
But all of that is irrelevant to the fact that for years, he has been ignoring S.C. law, which very clearly requires him to file a report each year with the State Ethics Commission detailing his contract to provide services to the government he helps run.
And it’s irrelevant to the fact that for years, the city has been ignoring an S.C. law (5-21-30) governing city financial matters, which very clearly prohibits a city from entering into a contract with a council member unless the city opens the contract to public bids and other City Council members vote unanimously to award that contract
And it’s irrelevant to the fact once a City Council member raised questions about the contract, and the council debated the matter, Dr. Wallace ignored the state law that clearly prohibits him from participating in that discussion and instead dressed down another council member who thought it might be a good idea for the city to obey the law.
As The Post and Courier’s Stephen Hobbs and Thad Moore report in the latest installment of our Uncovered project, Dr. Wallace’s business, Dillon Internal Medicine, has had a contract for more years than he or the city manager can remember to provide drug tests, physicals and other medical services for the city, but neither he nor the city followed state law until last summer.
These are not mere technical violations. There are two ways to handle conflicts of interest in government: Outlaw actions or require public disclosure, so voters can make decisions. South Carolina chose disclosure. The point of the ethics law, and of the municipal law that predates it by decades, is not to prohibit a council member from doing business with the municipality he helps govern. It’s to make sure that everybody knows that a council member stands to benefit from his position.
If his fellow council members think he’s actually giving the city a great deal, or even want to reward him for all of his other work by awarding him a too-generous contract, that’s their right. The law simply requires that they make an informed decision, and that voters in turn can make an informed decision about the choices council members make.
Unfortunately, Dr. Wallace’s case is not an isolated one.
Whether by carelessness or deception, it’s all too common for elected officials to leave required information off their state-mandated statements of economic interest. It’s all too common for elected officials, when they have a conflict of interest, to simply say they’re recusing themselves from a vote, without submitting an explanation in writing, as state law requires. It’s all too common for elected officials who have a conflict to nonetheless participate in the discussion about the conflict, even though state law prohibits that as well. We’d guess that it’s not particularly uncommon for local governments to award contracts to council members without putting the business out to bid and requiring a unanimous city council vote to approve them.
But these violations keep happening — and some elected officials are able to benefit personally from their elective office — because no one is calling them on it. Other public officials and citizens either don’t know about what the law requires or don’t know about the conflict, or they don’t care, so they don’t raise the issue. And the State Ethics Commission doesn’t have the tools to spot violations of the law unless someone files a complaint.
The obvious tool the Ethics Commission needs is more staff: It has just one auditor to review more than 22,000 filings each year from state and local elected officials, appointed officials and lobbyists. The agency has started conducting random audits, but that auditor checked only 327 of those reports last year. Such a low percentage frankly won’t serve as much of a deterrent.
A less-obvious tool the commission needs is easy access to the documents that would allow it to make better use of extra staff, or of the staff it has.
Municipalities have to disclose any business dealings they have with their leaders in annual audits, but the Ethics Commission doesn’t check those audits. Requiring officials to attach a link to the latest audit when they file their economic interest statement would make it easy for auditors to check them. It’s the same idea as a proposal by ethics reformers to require elected officials to attach copies of their campaign bank statements to their campaign disclosure statements, so the commission can verify that the two match up.
It’s unlikely that the Legislature will ever provide enough funding for the Ethics Commission to do a thorough review of all the reports, but with more staff and easier access to documents, the commission could do a much better job of spotting problems when they first pop up and warn officials to clear them up. Regardless of the circumstances, allowing public officials to violate the law year after year leads to an overall disrespect for our laws and undermines public trust in our government.