Crangle: Ethics law doesn’t protect Harrell, other legislators from prosecution

May 2, 2014 

John Crangle

“Expressio unius est exclusio alterius.”

Dragged from the fallen Roman Empire, this legal canon of construction means that a person can’t have more than one meaning in making a statement — a proposition that anyone who had ever dealt with politicians knows to be less than self-evident.

Yet this dubious bromide leftover from antiquity is the foundation of the S.C. Supreme Court’s decision in Rainey v. Haley that only the House Ethics Committee has jurisdiction over ethics complaints brought by individuals against House members.

Of course, as Justice Don Beatty pointed out in his dissent, “a circuit court has subject matter jurisdiction over violations of the Ethics Act as I discern no statutory provision … which confers exclusive jurisdiction to the State Ethics Commission or the Legislative Ethics Committees.” Justice Beatty should know, because at the time the Ethics Act was passed in 1991, Justice Beatty was Rep. Beatty, and he voted for it.

I should know, too. I was the only person who lobbied for the Ethics Act, and most of the principles embodied in the act were proposed and lobbied for by me and my organization, Common Cause of South Carolina.

It is a historical fiction that the Ethics Act was designed to give a monopoly on enforcement to the legislative ethics committees. It was written as the Operation Lost Trust investigation was sending 17 legislators, including two House Ethics Committee members, to federal prison for bribery and drugs; and the House and Senate Ethics committees had been exposed as dead watchdogs in a General Assembly overrun by coyotes and skunks.

Fortunately, the legislators who were left after the FBI cleared out the worst predators were able to pull together an ethics bill that was much better than most of us ever thought possible.

In framing the provision about the ethics committees, the conference committee clearly gave the Circuit Court jurisdiction over complaints 50 days before elections and further said that the legislative committees should “refer the matter to the Attorney General in the case of an alleged criminal violation” by the accused legislator (Section 8-13-540).

This morning we will have the lawyers for House Speaker Bobby Harrell telling Circuit Judge Casey Manning he must send a criminal complaint and a criminal investigation to the House Ethics Committee when the law says all the committee can do is send it back to the attorney general to do what he already is trying to do.

John Crangle

Executive Director, Common Cause/S.C.

Columbia

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