COLUMBIA, SC — A panel of state senators said Tuesday they do not support changing the process of enforcing the state’s ethics laws.
The lawmakers met to hear public testimony on whether they should change the state’s laws governing how much money politicians can raise for their campaigns, how they can spend it and who should hear allegations of unethical behavior against elected officials.
The panel is the fifth different legislative committee to study ethics reform in the past year. The issue has received attention because of a series of scandals, including the resignation of the state’s lieutenant governor and a Charleston state senator as well as unprecedented investigations of a sitting governor and S.C. House speaker.
Reform advocates – including the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the Coastal Conservation League and the Conservation Voters of South Carolina – urged lawmakers to establish an independent ethics committee made up of private citizens to investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers.
“Overall, there is little transparency, and the public must wonder if the majority of offenders are being identified and appropriate action taken,” said Lynn Teague, advocacy director for the S.C. chapter of the League of Women Voters.
But state Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, said the public does not seem interested in ethics reform.
“Not one person has mentioned anything to me (who) is not inside this political arena,” said Rankin, chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee. “I find it kind of curious there was no hue and cry.”
State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said the Senate Ethics Committee, made up of senators, did its job by investigating former Sen. Robert Ford on charges of misusing campaign money. Ford resigned in the middle of those hearings.
“It was emotionally painful to all of us ... but, at the end of the day, the right thing was done,” Jackson said. “Perhaps, the public sees that and, perhaps, that’s why they are not stopping us at grocery stores.”
Reform advocates said the public is interested in ethics reform.
“If you ask your constituents about ethics, you may get lukewarm responses,” said Rebecca Haynes, a lobbyist with the Conservation Voters. “(But) if you ask them about corruption or the appearance of corruption, you will get marching orders to clear up the confusion and adopt clear and understandable rules.”
State senators are scheduled to debate the ethics reform bill, H. 3945, when they return to Columbia in January. The bill already has passed the House. But Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, R-Richland, indicated the bill might be changed significantly in the Senate.
Courson began Tuesday’s meeting by reminding those attending of Operation Lost Trust, the 1990 FBI investigation that led to the indictment of 17 people. After that scandal, a Senate committee – including Courson – met to begin crafting what became the 1991 Ethics Reform Act, which lawmakers are debating changing.
“We had to start from Genesis, creating meaningful ethics legislation in this state with the knowledge, going in, that we cannot legislate morality,” Courson said. “If we could, we wouldn’t have 22,000 people in our prison system.
“(But) we can put up roadblocks to make it more difficult for people” to do the wrong thing.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.