Ethics: Haley touts stronger laws after years of debacles

January 1, 2013 

After the ethics debacles of 2012, South Carolinians could be excused if they think they need a bath.

• The lieutenant governor resigned and entered a guilty plea to violating state ethics laws.

• More than 250 candidates statewide were tossed off primary and general election ballots for failing to file their financial disclosure forms properly.

• The House Ethics Committee twice heard allegations the governor used her elected office, while a state representative, for personal gain. She was cleared after her attorney argued everybody does it and, legislators agreed, S.C. law is too vague.

Having emerged from her ethics crucible, Gov. Nikki Haley says she wants to strengthen the state’s ethics laws in the legislative session that starts in January. To start that work, Haley has named a commission that, along with S.C. House and Senate panels, is drawing up proposals.

Among the issues:

• Should lawmakers have to tell who they work for and how much they are paid, thus making public any conflicts of interest when they vote to spend state money or pass laws? For example, an undisclosed consulting fee of almost $50,000, paid then-state Rep. Haley, formed the basis of some of allegations against the first-term Republican governor.

• Should political committees have to disclose who their donors are – and their agendas? The issue is dear to some legislators who think they were unfairly targeted in November by ads paid for by shadowy groups – funded by who knows who, wanting who knows what.

• Should the state’s open-records law, intended to ensure the public knows what is going on, be strengthened – and agencies and officials that stonewall be held accountable? Now, some government agencies drag their feet on producing documents, delete communications, secretly communicate via private channels or insist on being paid large sums in copying and research fees in hopes inquiring members of the public – and the media – just will go away.

• Should the state’s ethics “police” be given teeth? For example, should S.C. House and state Senate members quit trying to police themselves and give that duty to an empowered State Ethics Commission, now toothless, or the state Attorney General’s Office?

Others want legislators to give up naming judges, saying that results in a crony judiciary cowed by lawmakers.

Will the politicians reform their own nests?

One early sign is not promising.

A Senate ethics reform panel seems intent on requiring income disclosure by lawmakers. But it does not want to require they say how much they were paid by any employer.

Haley, who needs to get in front of an issue that could sink her future political ambitions, insists she will push whatever reforms that her commission suggests.

Optimists can find reason for hope in one of this holiday season’s hottest new books: a biography of mogul Joseph P. Kennedy, who made a fortune in Wall Street stock manipulation and then acted, as the first head of the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission, to clean up the stock markets. After all, who better to clean up a crooked game than someone who knows all the tricks?

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