COLUMBIA, SC — Nikki Haley and Vincent Sheheen want to be more than South Carolina’s governor – they want to be the state’s conscience.
Haley, the first-term Republican governor running for re-election, continued her push Wednesday to force politicians to disclose who pays them. She said she is “trying to improve the tone of South Carolina” by making “people outside of South Carolina look at us differently.”
“This is to bring a conscience to the Legislature that is sorely needed,” Haley said of H.3945, the ethics reform bill pending before the state Senate.
Sheheen, the Democratic state senator from Kershaw County who lost to Haley in 2010 but is trying again in 2014, outlined his vision for a stronger ethics law in a letter to chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee – a vision that would outlaw several of Haley’s recent campaign actions, which have been upheld by the State Ethics Commission.
“It is critical we halt the predatory and self-serving activities that we have seen all too often over the last few years,” Sheheen wrote. “We need ethical leaders for ethical leadership.”
With less than a year to go before the 2014 elections, the Haley and Sheheen campaigns furiously are trying to portray their candidate as a beacon of ethical integrity.
The posturing comes after a disastrous two years for ethics in state politics.
In 2012, Ken Ard, the Republican lieutenant governor, resigned and entered a guilty plea to ethics charges. Earlier this year, Robert Ford, a Democratic state senator, resigned amid an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee. Add in ethics investigations of Haley, the state treasurer and House speaker – the first two resulting in no charges, the latter still pending – and ethics reform has the makings of a major 2014 election issue.
Traditionally, ethics reform has not been a potent campaign issue, said Richard Quinn of Columbia, a veteran GOP political consultant who is not affiliated with the Haley campaign. I can’t remember a time when (ethics reform) appeared to move numbers in a big way.”
But, Quinn added, this year could be different.
“Ethics could be a bigger issue in the coming election,” Quinn said. “In the polling I’ve done, federal and state and local, there is such a cynical feeling out there that approval ratings for incumbents at all levels (are) pretty low. Therefore, a candidate who appears to be prepared to do something to clean up the mess may have more resonance this coming cycle than it may have had in the past.”
Haley was surrounded Wednesday by legislators and government watchdog groups – including the AARP, League of Women Voters and Coastal Conservation League – as she kicked off a statewide campaign, demanding the Senate pass ethics reform.
The reform bill, which has passed the House, would require lawmakers to disclose the sources – but not the amounts – of their personal income, joining 47 other states that already require that. And it would create an independent ethics commission that would investigate complaints filed against lawmakers. However, any punishment would have to be approved by lawmakers.
“If you don’t know who pays your legislator, then you don’t know why they are voting the way they are,” Haley said. “What we want to do is take the conflict of interest out.”
Haley added: “If there is a legislator that blinks, that stalls, that tries to avoid or hijack any part of this, that is a red flag that will be exposed.”
While Haley was speaking, Democrats were asking Attorney General Alan Wilson to give an opinion on whether several of Haley’s recent campaign actions – transporting campaign staff in state-owned cars and appearing at a Republican fundraiser on the Governor’s Mansion grounds – were legal.
State Ethics Commission executive director Herb Hayden has said Haley did not break the law.
Democrats also were quick to point out Haley’s past ethical run-ins, including not disclosing more than $40,000 that she was paid by a Columbia engineering firm while a member of the House, deleting emails from her official state email account, paying an ethics fine for not reporting the addresses of a handful of contributors and reimbursing the state for using state-owned vehicles for campaign purposes.
The House Ethics Committee cleared Haley of any wrongdoing involving the $40,000-plus consulting fee, and the state Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit about it. Haley described the other problems as “ethical gray areas,” adding she has worked to clarify the rules to “make them black and white so no other governor has to go through what I’ve gone through.”
Haley has met with the Department of Archives and History to form a records- retention policy for the governor’s office – the first such policy in more than 40 years. She also has worked out a memorandum of understanding with the State Law Enforcement Division about when she will reimburse the state for using state-owned vehicles for campaign purposes. Haley, SLED chief Mark Keel and Hayden of the Ethics Commission all agreed to the deal.
“Any issue that is gray, we are going to make it work for the people of this state to make sure they know exactly where we are coming from,” Haley said.
A representative of the League of Women Voters, a government watchdog group that has been following the ethics reform issue closely, appeared with Haley at the news conference, endorsing the bill.
Lynn Teague, the group’s advocacy director, had pushed for a much stronger bill – one that would have required lawmakers to disclose how much as well as from whom they were paid, and created one independent ethics commission to govern all politicians. But, Teague said, there was “way too much pushback” from lawmakers for tougher rules.
“This is a reasonable solution, given the politics surrounding that,” Teague said.
What would the ethics bill do?
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley held a news conference Wednesday to demand lawmakers pass H.3945, a bill that would strengthen the state’s ethics laws. Here’s what the bill would do:
Force lawmakers to disclose who pays them – but not how much they are paid. Right now, lawmakers only must disclose how much they are paid by public sources or companies that hire a registered lobbyist.
Create an independent ethics committee that would investigate complaints against lawmakers. The committee, made up of non-lawmakers, would investigate complaints. But any punishment would have to be approved by lawmakers.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.