COLUMBIA, SC — An update to S.C. ethics laws more than a year in the making passed the state Senate on Thursday only to be blasted by Gov. Nikki Haley and her likely Democratic challenger for governor in November, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, as not being good enough.
In particular, the two rivals faulted the proposal for not including an independent body to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by lawmakers.
Lets be clear, what the Senate passed tonight wasnt ethics reform its an income-disclosure bill, and while thats a positive step forward, its really only a half-step, Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said.
Some reform is better than no reform, but this bill is pretty close to nothing, Sheheen said, before turning his criticism toward Haley. In order to have open and accountable government, we need full income disclosure, an independent body to investigate ethics violations, and to finally put an end to the governors continued misuse of the state plane and vehicles for campaign activities.
Haley has come under fire for her use of state vehicles for travel, including to some campaign events. The controversy led to her reimbursing the state for some expenses, and, critics said, demonstrated the need to clarify state rules that govern use of state-owned vehicles.
The Senate-passed bill would require public officials to report their sources of private income, but not the amounts that they are paid. It also would require consultants who discuss policy with lawmakers to register with the state, just as lobbyists, who attempt to influence the outcome of legislative votes, now do.
The Senate adopted Sheheens proposal to create educational seminars about ethics for public officials and candidates.
Also adopted was an amendment, sponsored by Sens. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, and Tom Young, R-Aiken, to require public officials to file bank-account statements with their campaign finance reports, making it easier to verify claimed expenses.
The Senate-passed bill also attempts to bring anonymous political groups into the sunshine, requiring the organizations to register and file financial disclosures with the state if more than half of their activity goes toward influencing the outcome of elections. Some legislators have complained that they have been targeted by political funds with unlimited sums raised from anonymous sources with unknown agendas.
Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, applauded the Senate bill as part of an ongoing debate about ethics laws. More than 20 years ago, he said, the states ethics law was a toothless ethics structure. The Senate proposal updates that law into a much stronger bill, he said.
Courson said the proposal to require lawmakers to disclose their private sources of income would eliminate problems elected officials, including Haley, have had, doing away with the need for hearings into whether a lawmaker violated an ethics law.
Courson was referring to the House Ethics Committee twice clearing Haley of allegations of illegal lobbying and other violations for working as a consultant while a state representative.
A version of the bill already has passed the House. Because the reform proposals, passed by the House and Senate, differ, the plan passed Thursday by the Senate now must go back to the House, which can accept or reject the Senates changes.
As the bill returns to the House, the question of who will police lawmakers remains unresolved. Under current law, legislative ethics committees in the House and Senate are tasked with investigating members of those bodies for ethics violations.
The House passed a bill in May that included an independent body to investigate allegations against lawmakers. But the Senate balked at that arrangement.
Senators pointed to the Senate Ethics Committees handling of allegations against Sen. Robert Ford, a Charleston Democrat, who the committee accused of misusing campaign money. Under pressure from the Senate committee, Ford resigned. Senators then referred the allegations against Ford to the State Law Enforcement Division for investigation.
Both Haley and Sheheen have called for ending the practice of lawmakers policing themselves.
The Senates failure to include independent investigations is just another glaring example of some legislators believing that its acceptable for the fox to continue guarding the hen house, Haley spokesman Mayer said. Its now up to the House to correct that mistake.
This bill is a modest step forward, Sheheen said, but we can do better.
Here a scandal, there a scandal
Calls for ethics reform in South Carolina intensified after series of scandals.
2010: In the wake of his secret affair with an Argentinian woman, then-Gov. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, pays the highest ethics fine in S.C. history after the state ethics commission alleges he misused state assets.
2012: Then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, R-Florence, resigns and enters a guilty plea to charges that he misused campaign money to, among other things, buy gifts for family members.
2012: The House Ethics Committee twice clears Gov. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, of allegations she lobbied for two former employers while a Lexington state representative, citing vagueness of the law and that she failed to report her consulting job for an engineering firm on filings. Committee members agree state ethics law didnt require that Haley disclose she was paid more than $40,000 by the firm, which did work for the state. Subsequently, Haley says S.C. needs tougher ethics laws.
2013: State Sen. Robert Ford, D-Democrat, resigns after allegations are made that he misused campaign money, including buying sex toys.
Today: A statewide Grand Jury is investigating allegations that House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, misused campaign funds, including to pay the cost of operating his private plane.
Changes to the states ethics laws have passed the House and Senate. Now, the bill passed Thursday by the Senate returns to the House, where it likely will be changed again, and the two chambers will be asked to reach a compromise.
The big debate: The Houses ethics reform bill would end the practice of state lawmakers policing themselves, moving the task of investigating ethics allegations against House and Senate members to an independent body. The Senate did not include independent oversight in its bill, setting the stage for a standoff.
The long shot: State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, Gov. Nikki Haleys Democratic challenger in November, has called for lawmakers to disclose the amounts they are paid by private employers. That idea likely is dead. Neither the GOP-controlled House nor the Republican-majority Senate included that reform in their versions of the bill.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct an error in the sponsor of an amendment, adopted by the Senate, that would require public officials to file bank account statements with their quarterly campaign finance reports.
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