Ethics reform

SC senators can’t agree who should hear ethics charges against lawmakers

abeam@thestate.comJanuary 9, 2014 

Gov. Nikki Haley, state leaders, and ethics reform advocates held a news conference to talk about ethics reform, an issue that figures to be major in the 2014 campaign for governor.

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com Buy Photo

— Ethics reform – the thorny issue embraced by the state’s candidates for governor but held at arms length by most rank-and-file legislators – will live or die on one issue when lawmakers return to Columbia next week: Enforcement.

A bipartisan committee of seven state senators Thursday released its report on a House ethics bill, revealing it could not agree on who should investigate and prosecute lawmakers charged with ethics violations.

“We have reached an impasse on that,” said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, a member of the study committee. “We just have to resolve it on the floor.”

Ethics Report Final

Now, lawmakers investigate each other. In the past two years, the House Ethics Committee has dismissed an ethics complaint against Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and punted rather than investigate charges against powerful House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

Critics say the state needs an independent ethics commission to investigate lawmakers to avoid the perception that they are getting special treatment from fellow legislators.

Others – including state Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, chairman of the ethics study committee – point to the Senate Ethics Committee’s investigation of state Sen. Robert Ford and the Charleston Democrat’s subsequent resignation as proof that the current system works.

A Senate amendment – endorsed by Haley and her Democratic challenger, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen – would overhaul the State Ethics Commission, giving it the power to investigate and prosecute lawmakers facing ethics charges. But the House and Senate ethics committees still would decide guilt or innocence and hand down any punishments.

Overall, the Senate study committee found the state’s ethics laws are weak and need “meaningful and comprehensive” reform to “greatly enhance the trust in South Carolina’s public officials.”

The committee also agreed the state should require lawmakers to disclose everyone who pays them, with some exceptions for court-ordered settlements and interest on certain financial accounts. And it endorsed proposed new rules setting limits on campaign contributions to political committees that try to influence the outcome of an election.

Underlying the policy debate is politics.

Haley and Sheheen both are jockeying to claim the title of most ethical candidate.

Sheheen hinted Thursday that he will try to amend the ethics bill further to “finally stop elected officials from campaigning on the taxpayer dime through the inappropriate use of the state plane and state vehicles,” continuing his criticism of Haley for her use of both. A Haley spokesman reiterated the governor’s support for the Senate amendment, adding she “greatly looks forward” to the debate.

Rankin, the study committee’s chairman, said the committee’s report intentionally steered clear of political issues.

“This document is not a pro-Haley or anti-Haley. It’s not a pro-Sheheen or anti-Sheheen,” Rankin said of the report. “There are a lot suggestions out there.”

The House ethics bill – H.3945 – already has 54 pending Senate amendments and others still are being written. Because the bill is set for “special order,” senators must take up the issue at the start of next week’s new session – meaning it could bog the Senate down for weeks.

READ THE FULL REPORT

Ethics Report Final

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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