Editorial: Don’t use openness ruse to kill ethics reform

April 25, 2013 

— NO ONE ADMITS to being opposed to ethics reform. But plenty of people are.

We had always expected that those who support South Carolina’s corruption-enabling status quo would try to either water down ethics-reform proposals, so they’d look like reform without actually being reform, or else load up the legislation with poison pills. And efforts at both are actively underway as the House prepares to debate the issue today.

But the secretive rush job that House leaders applied to their legislation last week has given the anti-ethics legislators an opening to derail reform in the name of preserving public participation in the lawmaking process. Their insidious argument is that the public was robbed of the opportunity to comment on the reform package because it wasn’t available for public inspection until after last week’s public hearing. Thus, they argue, the bill needs to be sent back to committee to allow proper public input.

And by the way, they’ve got some prime oceanfront real estate to sell you at a bargain price. In Eastover.

It’s true that citizens didn’t get to see the bill until after the subcommittee hearing — and after the subcommittee and full committee had passed it. It’s also true that no one had a chance to speak at the hearing on the specifics of the bill that is now on the House calendar. But it is simply not true to say that this robbed people of the opportunity to have their voices heard. Or that another public hearing is needed.

Because it’s so late in the legislative session, the only thing sending the bill back to committee will accomplish is to exponentially reduce — if not destroy — any chance of reforming our ethics law this year. A law that lets legislators hide the business relationships that create conflicts of interest, and use campaign funds in ways most of us would consider unethical, and police their own behavior, and get off with slaps on the wrist if they do somehow manage to violate its too-permissive provisions.

After six months of public hearings — before House and Senate panels and before Gov. Nikki Haley’s special ethics study commission — it’s hard to conceive of any ideas that haven’t been expressed about what ethics reform should include. Did anyone specifically say, “Don’t decriminalize the ethics law” — as the House bill currently does? Probably not, because none of us could have imagined that anyone would have the audacity to propose such a thing. But legislators know very well that no one outside the State House wants ethics violations reduced to the status of technical infractions.

Bills undergo significant changes in the House, in the Senate, in committee — all after the subcommittee hearing. The problem with this bill wasn’t that the public didn’t get to address the particulars; it’s that subcommittee members didn’t see it in time to read it. It’s that when they asked questions about what was in the bill, they didn’t get straight answers. The problem is that the bill did things that subcommittee members had no idea it did — beginning but not ending with eliminating even the possibility of criminal penalties for all ethics violations except bribery.

Fortunately, legislators and watchdog groups have been studying the bill for the past week, identifying the problems and drafting amendments to correct them. Fortunately, the Senate will review anything the House passes. And after the Senate passes a bill, the competing versions will go to a conference committee, where the language will be studied even more.

But there is practically no chance that any of that will happen this year if the House doesn’t get the bill to the Senate by Wednesday. And there’s no chance of that happening if the House sends the bill back to committee. Here’s what you need to know about any legislators who vote to do that: They are voting to kill ethics reform.

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