Agreement breaks Senate logjam on ethics reform, for now

abeam@thestate.comFebruary 21, 2014 

Selling The Capitol

BRUCE SMITH — AP

— The state Senate agreed Thursday that lawmakers should not have political action committees, anonymous political groups must reveal their donors and public officials must disclose who is paying them.

But the Senate made no changes to who would enforce those new rules, meaning House lawmakers will regulate House lawmakers, Senate lawmakers will regulate Senate lawmakers, and an ethics commission appointed by the governor will regulate everyone else.

Both candidates for governor – Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen – said they did not support the Senate’s amendment.

“The governor has always maintained that two critical components of ethics reform are income disclosure and independent investigations and nothing has changed,” Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said in an email.

The Senate gave the ethics reform bill a key approval on Thursday afternoon, clearing the way for a final vote next week that would send the bill back to the House, which passed it last year. But the bill is far from finished. Senators agreed to suspend the rules and allow lawmakers to introduce new amendments to the bill next week – a dangerous process that could choke the bill. Before Thursday’s agreement, the bill had 61 amendments on the desk – enough debate to tie up the Senate for the rest of the session.

And even if the Senate passes the bill and sends it back to the House, it will be in a much different form than the one the House passed last year. The original House bill would have empowered the State Ethics Commission to investigate complaints against lawmakers and – if the commission found enough evidence – force lawmakers to hold public hearings on the complaints.

The state Senate met in secret for most of the day trying to work out a compromise. At one point, the Senate was close to agreeing on letting SLED investigate complaints against lawmakers. But that idea was nixed because of fears over who would refer the complaints to SLED and what would happen to SLED’s investigatory reports once they were finished.

“We have 46 members and 46 different opinions on how to do that,” Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, told lawmakers on Thursday when announcing the agreement.

Hayes still called the bill “major ethics reform” by requiring lawmakers and anonymous political groups to disclose their incomes.

But Sheheen said the Senate’s amendment weakened the ethics bill.

“Right now the governor appoints the committee that investigates the governor. That’s true for the Senate and for the House and the amendment weakened that,” Sheheen said. Sheheen voted against the amendment but in favor of the bill.

But some of Sheheen’s fellow Democrats disagreed with him. State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said the Senate has been tough on its members over the years. In 1995, the Senate voted to expel former Sen. Theo Mitchell, who pleaded guilty to not reporting large cash transactions for a client later convicted of drug charges. And last year, Sen. Robert Ford resigned amid a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into whether he used his campaign money for personal expenses.

“Show me where the State Ethics Commission has taken down an elected official and just removed them from office,” Jackson said. “Saying that we can’t make those tough decisions, history doesn’t back that up.”

Ethics reform has been a big issue at the State House since 2011, when former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned, was indicted and pleaded guilty to ethics charges all in the same day. That was the beginning of a series of high profile ethics cases that included the governor, state treasurer, House speaker and the chairman of the investment commission that oversees the state’s $27 billion retirement fund.

The treasurer and investment commission chairman were both cleared of their ethics charges. The governor was cleared of her major ethics charges, but was fined for not reporting the addresses of eight campaign donors from her 2010 campaign. The State Grand Jury is investigating House Speaker Bobby Harrell on his ethics charges that he used his campaign money for personal expenses – charges that Harrell has denied. The governor’s campaign has criticized Sheheen, an attorney, for having cases before magistrates whom he recommended for appointment.

Both Haley and Sheheen have made ethics reform a major part of their campaigns for governor.

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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