blueprint for reform

SC governor creates ethics panel

Commission to join legislative committees in preparing proposal for Legislature

ashain@thestate.comOctober 19, 2012 

  • Special ethics commission Gov. Nikki Haley signed an executive order Thursday creating an ethics reform commission to examine the state’s income disclosure, conflict of interest, campaign finance and open records laws. The independent 11-member group will issue a report before Jan. 28 that could help guide legislation. Members were appointed by Haley unless otherwise noted. One appointment is pending from the Senate Ethics committee chairman, Wes Hayes. Co-chairman Henry McMaster, former S.C. attorney general and U.S. attorney Co-chairman Travis Medlock, former S.C. attorney general Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC’s College of Mass Communications and Information Studies Ben Hagood, former state representative and assistant U.S. attorney Kelly Jackson, former 3rd Circuit solicitor, appointed by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson Monica Key, community relations manager at Bridgestone America, appointed by the House Ethics Committee chairman Roland Smith Susi McWilliams, former chairwoman of the S.C. Ethics Commission Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association John Simmons, former U.S. attorney and state ethics commissioner Xavier Starkes, former assistant U.S. attorney

Gov. Nikki Haley, the target of an ethics probe this spring, Thursday ramped up efforts to fix South Carolina’s legislative disclosure, conflict of interest and open records laws, creating a commission to develop a blueprint for ethics reform.

Headed by former S.C. attorneys general Henry McMaster and Travis Medlock, the commission joins three legislative committees assigned the task of developing a proposal to be considered by the Legislature, starting in January. The governor also introduced a reform plan this summer.

“I’m going to take this report very seriously,” said Haley, a Lexington Republican. “Will I agree with everything? Probably not. Will the House or Senate, probably not.”

Lawmakers working on ethics reform say they expect any legislation to include recommendations from the legislative committees and the governor’s special commission – all of which say they want to know what the public thinks.

“There’s going to be a marriage, one way or another,” said House Ethics Committee chairman Roland Smith, R-Aiken.

Ethics reform became a hot-button issue in the state when Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, a Pamplico Republican, resigned in May and entered a guilty plea to using campaign money for personal purchases. The following month, the House Ethics Committee heard allegations that Haley had used her office for personal gain while a state representative from Lexington County. The panel cleared Haley.

The issue flared again with a newspaper report questioning a lack of details about payments of roughly $300,000 to House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, from his campaign fund since 2008. Harrell, who repaid $23,000 to his campaign, has denied any wrongdoing.

“We have seen too many elected officials – rightly or wrongly – put under that ethics cloud and that has led to the erosion of the public trust,” said Haley, who signed an executive order creating the commission.

The first-term governor said South Carolina’s ethics problems are not worse than Operation Lost Trust, the 1990 federal sting that led to convictions or guilty pleas from 17 legislators on corruption charges.

“But we shouldn’t wait for another Operation Lost Trust to have this happen,” she said. “We should be in front of it.”

Lawmakers applauded the commission. It will work independently of the governor’s office and issue a report by Jan. 28, soon after the General Assembly reconvenes. No initial meeting was announced.

“No one has a monopoly on ethics reform,” said state Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, who is leading the House Republican special ethics reform committee. “Everyone has good ideas. The more, the better.”

The commission includes eight members appointed by Haley as well members appointed by House and Senate ethics leaders and Attorney General Alan Wilson, R-Lexington.

Members include: Susi McWilliams, former state Ethics Commission chairwoman; Ben Hagood, a former state representative and assistant U.S. attorney; and Charles Bierbauer, dean of the University of South Carolina’s mass communications school. The commission also includes two more former U.S. attorneys, the head of the S.C. Press Association, a former solicitor and a community relations manager from Bridgestone Tires.

“The ultimate blueprint (for reform) is the one this commission does because they have no personal gain in it,” Haley said. “They have nothing to do but bring trust to the public.”

But John Crangle, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina, raised questions about the former attorneys general – Democrat Medlock and Republican McMaster – who are leading the commission.

“I hope they are not preoccupied by the political implications for themselves or their law practices,” Crangle said.

Medlock did not pursue a state investigation after Lost Trust that might have unearthed more wrongdoing, and McMaster voted against a campaign finance reform report while a member of a task force appointed by Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges, Crangle said.

Medlock said the state was acting as a liaison with federal authorities during Lost Trust, and McMaster said he did not approve of the campaign reform report because it called for public financing, which he opposes.

Crangle said he does not expect legislators to make substantive reforms but the recent chatter is helpful. “The more people we can get talking about ethics in South Carolina, the more pressure it puts on the General Assembly to do something.”

Haley and McMaster, who opposed Haley in the 2010 GOP primary before endorsing her in the Republican runoff, said they want to see the state lead nationally on ethics reform.

“Let’s take it to the top,” Haley said. “I have tried to do that with everything we’ve done. How do we make South Carolina shine and become the ‘it’ state? We’ve done it with tourism. We’ve done it with jobs. Let’s do it with ethics.”

Haley said eliminating gray areas might have helped her avoid allegations that she violated state ethics laws.

“I should not have had to go to an attorney every year, and say, ‘What am I supposed to write on this?’ Or ‘Is this right or is this wrong?’ ” Haley said. “It needs to be clean and clear.

“If you want to serve, you should be willing to put everything out there. You should be willing to show whatever you have and follow the rules.”

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