Close the state's revolving door between agencies, regulated industry

Posted 2/9/18

Editor's note: This editorial originally ran in the Wednesday edition of the Post and Courier.

The revolving door between state agencies and the industries they regulate goes back decades in South Carolina. You could call it a Palmetto State …

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Close the state's revolving door between agencies, regulated industry

Posted

Editor's note: This editorial originally ran in the Wednesday edition of the Post and Courier.

The revolving door between state agencies and the industries they regulate goes back decades in South Carolina. You could call it a Palmetto State tradition.

You also could call it a holdover of the good ol' boy system that needs a stronger law to completely close.

That's why the Legislature should approve a bill to strengthen requirements for a one-year waiting period before a former public employee can accept a job in a company regulated by the agency where he formerly worked. It should be a slam-dunk for lawmakers who care about ethics, transparency and accountability.

The wait-period requirement is being tested by Catherine Heigel, who took a job with a large water utility just six months after leaving her post as chief of the Department of Health and Environmental Control. Ms. Heigel got a favorable opinion on the issue from a private law firm before accepting her new private-sector job with Carolina Water Service, which serves customers in the Midlands and Upstate. The company also provides sewage treatment.

Carolina Water Service says the law doesn't apply because Ms. Heigel wasn't "directly and substantially" involved in any regulatory decisions regarding the company, which has a lengthy history of being charged by state environmental regulators for releasing sewage into rivers.

Perhaps that argument could work if Ms. Heigel had been sealed inside a bubble while at DHEC, but that's obviously not the case. As the head of DHEC, she ultimately had responsibility for the full range of its operations, regulatory and otherwise.

The intent of the law is to stop the revolving door between government officials and the private companies they regulate. If the law doesn't apply to the director of an agency, who would it apply to?

"I think that whether you are directly involved or tangentially involved really makes no difference," Rep. Gary Clary, a Republican from Pickens County and a leading voice in the drive for clearer, stronger ethics laws, told reporter Andrew Brown.

"If you are a director of a state agency, that would in essence make you responsible for anything that went on in that agency," Rep. Clary said.

The proposed law isn't aimed at Ms. Heigel - it was introduced last year, before she left her government job - but it does add to the debate about her new role in the private sector.

Passing a stronger law would help rebuild the public's trust in state government amid the Statehouse corruption probe. Some of the problems are because of vague laws that are open to interpretation and, sometimes, exploitation.

The bill is expected to be approved by the Judiciary Committee and advance to the House floor.

As they debate the proposal, lawmakers should recognize that the public is sick and tired of hair-splitting when it comes to ethics matters.