Haley: Toughen ethics laws (+video)

Harrell: Governor’s ‘own questionable actions’ are driving her reform efforts

gnsmith@thestate.comAugust 23, 2012 

  • Ethics reform proposal Members of the House and Senate ethics committees, state Attorney General Alan Wilson, the state Election Commission and others have been meeting for months, working on a package of ethics reforms. Those reforms — previewed in a State article published Aug. 5 — likely will address many of the areas discussed Wednesday by Gov. Nikki Haley. Other likely topics include: Defining “cronyism” and “nepotism.” State law has little to say about lawmakers and other elected officials who help family and friends get taxpayer-paid jobs. The law bars a public official from hiring a family member for a job that the public official directly supervises or manages. But that leaves lots of room for jobs once- or twice-removed from the person in power, such as the summer job of Gov. Nikki Haley’s daughter with an agency that reports to the governor. Defining “committee.” A 2010 court ruling declared unconstitutional the state’s definition of “committee.” That ruling threw out regulations limiting contributions to political parties. The result? Unlimited fundraising by and donations to political groups that do not have to disclose where the money came from.

Gov. Nikki Haley traveled the state Wednesday, touting a plan she said would strengthen the state’s ethics laws — and firing up a powerful fellow Republican who said Haley is the reason ethics reform is needed in the first place.

Haley, recently cleared of ethics violation charges, toured the state with South Carolina’s top law-enforcement officer, Attorney General Alan Wilson, to unveil a five-point ethics reform proposal.

But House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, and others said Haley only is trying to hijack the efforts of lawmakers who have been working on ethics reform legislation for months. “... (I)f we had these reforms in place before Governor Haley committed her actions, she would probably still be meeting with the attorney general, only in a different place,” Harrell said in a statement.

During Haley’s first stop, in Charleston, the Lexington Republican rolled out her plan, including requiring lawmakers and their immediate family members to disclose their income from all employers and the amounts received.

“It’s more transparent. It’s more accountable,” said Haley, who came under fire during her 2010 race for governor for not disclosing that she had been paid more than $40,000 as a consultant for a Midlands engineering firm that did work for the state.

At the time, Haley said she did not disclose that relationship because state law did not require the disclosure. The State Ethics Commission agreed with her.

Haley’s plan also calls for:

• Having the state Ethics Commission investigate ethics allegations against all public officials, not just statewide officials. Currently, the House Ethics Committee, made up of S.C. House members, investigates allegations against House members while the state Senate Ethics Committee, made up of senators, looks into allegations against senators.

“It’s the fox guarding the henhouse,” said Haley, who this spring was cleared of ethics charges, dating to her tenure as a legislator, by the House Ethics Committee.

• Requiring all branches of government to comply with the state’s open records law, called the Freedom of Information Act. Currently, lawmakers are exempt from sharing correspondence and other documents with the public. While running for governor, Haley cited the exemption to prevent the media from seeing some of her emails. Later, she released office emails to reporters.

• Requiring incumbents and challengers seeking office to file the same election paperwork. More than 250 challengers were kicked off the ballot this year because of a financial disclosure requirement that many said they did not understand. Incumbents were not required to file the same paperwork. “What we saw this year was a travesty,” said Haley, who unsuccessfully pushed to get challengers restored to the ballot.

• Prohibit lawmakers who are lawyers from appearing before certain boards on behalf of their clients. Under current law, lawyer-lawmakers may vote at the committee level on the confirmation of members to the Workers’ Compensation Commission and Department of Health and Environmental Control Board and then appear before those boards to advocate for a client.

“We need to make sure lawyer-legislators don’t have an advantage,” Haley said.

Haley’s proposals quickly were lashed by others.

Harrell, who has butted heads with Haley previously, criticized Haley Wednesday for failing to work with lawmakers on her reform plan.

“In a lone effort lacking any legislative notification or input, Gov. Haley announced an ethics reform package centered on making actions similar to some of those she admitted to illegal,” Harrell said. “The biggest driving force behind the need for ethics reform in our state was brought about by Gov. Haley’s own questionable actions.”

Haley’s office replied that Harrell’s comments prove he agrees with Haley’s reform initiatives, adding next year should be the year that South Carolina gets some of the “toughest and best ethics laws in the country. It’s a great day in South Carolina.”

Democrats criticized Haley for practicing “Do as I say, not as I do” politics.

“Today’s events were a publicity stunt by a governor who has manipulated the existing ethics laws since the day she stepped foot in the State House,” said House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-Calhoun.

Ashley Landess, director of the S.C. Policy Council, a conservative Columbia think tank that espouses limited government and libertarian-leaning politics, said Haley’s plan does not go far enough.

“The people want more than what she’s proposing,” Landess said. “She’s holding a big press conference and announcing all of these issues without realizing the public is already on board with a much larger, much broader set of reforms.”

Landess also was critical of the specifics of Haley’s proposal, including her plan to improve the state’s open records law. “She should be pushing her agencies, who she oversees, to comply with (the open records law) better,” Landess said.

State agencies now can charge excessive fees for gathering public information, making it too expensive to request information. “It’s absurd state agencies get away with charging the public for information that they’re paid by the public to deliver,” Landess said.

Haley defended her touting of ethics reforms.

“As governor, it’s important for me to lead. You lead and you let the Legislature know what we want,” Haley said, adding lawmakers likely will come up with additional ethics reforms that will strengthen her plan.

Attorney General Wilson, a fellow Lexington Republican, said he hopes to set up a public integrity unit that would provide resources, drawn from various state agencies, for investigations into alleged ethics violations by lawmakers.

During the House Ethics Committee investigation earlier this year into whether Haley illegally lobbied, some House members complained that panel had too few staff and resources to conduct a thorough investigation.

Haley was cleared of all charges in that case. But the state Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal by John Rainey, the GOP activist who accused Haley. The state’s highest court will determine whether a state judge was right to dismiss a Rainey-filed lawsuit against Haley.

Rainey said Wednesday that Haley’s interest in ethics reform is a “coincidence,” coming just days after the state’s highest court agreed to take up his appeal.

Haley is only one of several elected leaders working on ethics reforms.

Members of the Senate and House Ethics committees along with the state Election Commission and Wilson’s office have been meeting for months, drafting legislation to put new teeth into the state’s ethics laws, last overhauled two decades ago after the Lost Trust scandal.

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, one of those involved, said Haley did not speak with him before rolling out her plan Monday.

“I long ago gave up on trying to take credit,” Hayes said, adding many of Haley’s ideas are good.

“Everything she’s proposing ought to be on the table,” Hayes said. “I appreciate her raising ethics to the top of her agenda.”

Reach Smith at (803) 414-1340.

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