Editorial: SC Senate should try again on ethics; independent oversight is key to reform

February 22, 2014 

— THE PURPOSE of an ethics law is to deter public officials from serving their own personal interests or the interests of their patrons instead of ours. We can’t stop it, but we can reduce its occurrence by requiring full reporting of potential conflicts of interest, outlawing some behaviors that involve conflicts and creating a muscular, independent enforcement mechanism with serious penalties.

And for nearly two years now, our elected officials have been promising that they would do just that.

But the bill the House passed last year fell far short of the goal, keeping legislators in control of the panel that polices their ethics, making prosecution of ethics violations more difficult than it already is, ignoring most campaign-finance loopholes and requiring only modestly more reporting about who is paying legislators.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to require legislators to report the source of all income for themselves, their businesses and their families, increase criminal penalties and let an independent commission investigate legislators’ ethical lapses. It still fell short, but it was a huge improvement over the House bill — enough that we could call it significant progress.

That was last year.

As it stands today, nothing approaching the Senate committee bill is even on the table. On Thursday, all but three senators voted to scrap the independent commission and call the remaining changes reform.

The compromised bill does give us more information about legislators’ sources of income and their last-minute campaign donations and about some independent groups’ spending. And those are important improvements.

But it’s not reform of the scope that our political leaders have been promising. Reform of the scope that would significantly deter public officials from serving their own personal interests at the expense of the public interest.

The bad news is that even the most reform-minded senators say this is the best they can do, that they can’t get enough votes to do more.

The good news is that senators get one more chance to try — to make the bill at least as tough as it was a week ago.

They need to take it.

Senate leaders say there is widespread support for an independent investigative entity, but that they can’t agree on the details: Who would appoint it, and under what rules? How broad would its investigative authority be? Would all of its findings be made public, and when? If it’s true that the deadlock is over the details instead of the concept, then it’s too soon to give up and settle for no progress on the most important element of reform.

Possibly as early as Tuesday, the Senate will consider amendments to the compromise it gave tentative approval on Thursday. Most senators hope the debate will be limited to cleaning up drafting errors and oversights. It must not be.

Before they pass a bill that ignores two of the four reforms we need, senators need to try one more time to find a way to join the 33 states that allow someone other than legislators to investigate legislators’ ethical lapses. And they need to put more teeth into the law.

There’s simply no justification for maintaining the status quo — and no way to call a bill serious ethics reform if it doesn’t change that.

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