Gov.'s commission suggests 'clean, honest' ethics plan

Commission: Lawmakers should disclose more about their income

ashain@thestate.comJanuary 29, 2013 

  • Reforming S.C. ethics Highlights of recommendations made Monday by the S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform, created by Gov. Nikki Haley: • Mandating disclosure of income paid lawmakers and immediate family members by government and private sources, when those payments are related to a lawmaker’s government post • Banning political action committees operated by legislative leaders that allow those leaders to raise unlimited funds • Having the S.C. Ethics Commission review all complaints against lawmakers • Preventing a legislator from representing clients before a state board or commission if the lawmaker voted to appoint its members • Requiring lobbyists to file with the state Ethics Commission before appearing before any local government board or council • Speeding response time for Freedom of Information requests and lowering fees for those requests

— SC lawmakers would disclose more about their income, including money paid immediate family members, and face stiffer fines under new ethics rules suggested Monday by a commission created by Gov. Nikki Haley.

[Read a background document and the commission's full report at the bottom of this story.]

The commission and three legislative committees are looking at ways to strengthen SC ethics laws after high-profile cases last year. Those cases included the House Ethics Committee twice clearing Haley of charges that the Lexington Republican used her office for personal gain while a state representative and the resignation of Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, who entered a guilty plea to charges of misusing campaign contributions.

Operation Lost Trust, a bribery scandal that rocked South Carolina two decades ago, was invoked during commission hearings, but members said the latest incidents are not as severe.

“But reform may prevent us from having another one,” said Susi McWilliams, a former chairwoman of the SC Ethics Commission and member of the governor’s commission. “That’s the goal.”

The recommendations from the governor’s commission, led by former SC attorneys general Henry McMaster and Travis Medlock, will be weighed by state lawmakers against the suggestions made by legislative committees, which met simultaneously.

Many recommendations made by the governor’s commission mimicked those Haley suggested herself last year — notably requiring lawmakers to disclose any income they get from private sources related to their government post. Legislators now are required to disclose only what they are paid by government agencies.

The commission also recommended that the spouse of public officials and any children living at home also disclose their income sources.

Lawmakers and their families would have to disclose how much they received from government agencies or contracts, businesses with government contracts tied to the public official or firms that hire lobbyists.

But they would not have to reveal how much they were paid for work not related to their government post. Requiring that, McMaster said at one commission hearing, would lead some lawmakers to resign rather than have their privacy violated.

Another suggestion is more narrowly defining a political committee so more groups will have to file details of their election spending. The status of political committees is up in the air after a federal court shot down the state’s definition of “committee” as overly broad.

The commission also called for an end to leadership political action committees that allow legislative leaders to raise unlimited funds. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, and House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, have such committees.

“We must not only be clean and honest, we must look clean and honest,” McMaster said.

Other recommendations from the commission, formed in October by an executive order by the governor, included:

• Having the SC Ethics Commission weigh all complaints against lawmakers and decide whether to refer cases to a new Public Integrity Unit — led by the SC attorney general — for major violations, or to the House and Senate ethics committees for minor violations. Alternately, the Ethics Commission could sanction legislators itself. The Senate and House ethics committees have jurisdiction over state lawmakers now.

A special GOP House committee suggested abolishing the House and Senate ethics committees last week.

• Raising the fines for ethics violations, but the commission did not provide specifics.

• Stopping legislators from representing a client before a state board or commission if the lawmaker voted to appoint its members.

• Requiring lobbyists to register with the state Ethics Commission when going before any local government board or council. Now, they must register only to lobby state government.

• Speeding the response time for Freedom of Information requests and lowering the fees that can be charged for such requests. Legislators also would no longer be exempt from open-records laws.

• Allowing the use of the state plane for bill signings and news conferences. Haley reimbursed the state $9,590 last year after an Associated Press report found she used the state plane for bill signings and news conferences, not considered official duties under current rules.

Funding for some of the recommendations — such as more staffing for the state Ethics Commission — would come from increasing the registration fees that lobbyists pay, the commission said.

“Without funding, you have a report full of tinkling bells, sounding in fury and signifying nothing,” Medlock said.

The ethics-reform commission included former U.S. attorneys, state Ethics Commission members and media representatives. Haley appointed eight of the commission’s 11 members.


Documents

Here is a backgrounder and the full ethics reform commission report.

For fullscreen, downloading and other options, use the toolbars at the bottom of each document.

Background on the commission

The full report

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