Empowering the State Ethics Commission or some other outside group to punish legislators for breaking ethics laws – the primary campaign issue for dozens of newly elected or re-elected state lawmakers – would require an amendment to the state Constitution, the dean of USC’s law school told House Republicans Thursday.
But government watchdog groups said interpreting the Constitution that way puts lawmakers above the law.
Article 3, Section 12 of the state Constitution says, in part: “each house shall choose its own officers, determine its rules of procedure, punish its members for disorderly conduct.”
Rob Wilcox, dean of the USC School of Law, told lawmakers that means the House and Senate are the only entities that can punish their members for breaking House and Senate rules. But he said lawmakers can get some help in investigating lawmakers.
Wilcox suggested lawmakers form a commission, including members of the public, to investigate and recommend punishment for violation of House and Senate rules. However, House and Senate lawmakers would have the final decision. Wilcox compared his proposed process to the way the state Supreme Court disciplines attorneys by first having complaints investigated against the laws investigated by the Commission on Lawyer Conduct.
“The inclusion of the public is designed to provide assurances this is not a closed disciplinary process,” Wilcox told members of the House GOP ethics study committee, one of four committees studying ethics reform in advance of the 2013 legislative session.
“That’s certainly a viable option,” said state Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, chairman of the GOP study committee. “If you can have an investigatory arm, you can also have some input or some type of committee where the perception is the fox is not guarding the henhouse.”
But Ashley Landess of the S.C. Policy Council and John Crangle of Common Cause said lawmakers accused of breaking state ethics laws should be investigated by law enforcement, instead of by their fellow lawmakers.
“Disciplining each other is not the same as investigating violations of state law,” Landess said in an interview with The State newspaper. “They don’t have the authority to investigate state law in the Legislature, period.”
State law says the House and Senate ethics committees have to investigate all ethics complaints against lawmakers, including violations of the state’s ethics laws. But that does not prevent law enforcement agencies from also investigating and prosecuting lawmakers on their own. The tricky part is figuring out when an ethics violation is a criminal act.
For example, House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, faces accusations of breaking state ethics laws by spending campaign contributions on personal items – accusations Harrell disputes.
Landess and Crangle have vowed to file a complaint with the House Ethics Committee. But they also are urging state Attorney General Alan Wilson to take over the case and met with Wilson Thursday. Wilson has said the House Ethics Committee “must be given the chance to proceed as designed by law.”
Across the state, dozens of candidates campaigned for the state Legislature promising to reform state ethics laws, including Beth Bernstein, who defeated state Rep. Joan Brady, R-Richland, a member of the House Ethics Committee. Bernstein noted a political action committee affiliated with Harrell donated money to the campaigns of all five Republicans on the six-member House Ethics Committee
“You have your most powerful House member questioned publicly about campaign expenditures and no confidence that there will be an independent investigation,” Landess said.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.