Scoppe: House plan gives us less than minimum on ethics

Associate EditorMay 11, 2014 

— IN SOUTH Carolina, the defenders of the status quo win not by getting the most votes or making the best arguments but simply by wearing down the reformers. And that is painfully close to happening with ethics reform.

Two years ago, a broad consensus started developing that we had to overhaul our ethics law, in order to increase the incentive for elected officials to serve the public interest instead of their own personal interests.

We would do this by making their potential conflicts of interest more visible, by stripping legislators of their authority to enforce their fellow legislators’ compliance with the ethics and campaign-finance law and by giving enforcers more tools to catch violators and higher penalties to levy once they caught them.

Or, I should say that a consensus developed outside the State House.

I’m not convinced that there ever was a majority in the Legislature that was committed to doing anything more than paying lip service to reform. Passing something that they could claim was reform.

In the two years since then, the situation has gone from bad to worse, as legislators have become more and more comfortable with their absolute rejection of the linchpin of reform: independent enforcement.

The House passed a plan last year to create a joint legislative oversight committee, which it called independent but which was made up entirely of legislators. The Senate passed a plan that retains the current, self-policing arrangement. And now the House Judiciary Committee has come up with a Rube Goldberg contraption that would investigate (but not punish) legislators, state and local candidates, public officials and judges. Yes, judges, who operate under an entirely different, and stricter, ethics system than officials in the political branches of government. It would be unjust to the word “joke” to call this a joke.

Meantime, the speaker of the House is in court arguing that the attorney general has no authority to investigate potential crimes related to legislators’ position as legislators without the blessing of the House or Senate Ethics committee.

The pending judicial ruling is so worrisome that one of the Legislature’s most respected voices on ethics pulled me aside Thursday to note how insane that line of defense is, as preface to saying that the House absolutely must prevent any such future miscarriages of justice, by adding language to make it absolutely clear beyond anybody’s doubt that the attorney general has full jurisdiction over criminal ethics violations. As he already does but at least one judge seems to think he might not. I’m not holding my breath.

To their credit, the House and Senate both have passed bills that close some campaign-finance loopholes and require some reporting of legislators’ sources of income; the Senate bill even increases some penalties and gives enforcers some new tools to enforce the law.

But the House committee amendment would allow elected officials who “accidentally” convert campaign funds to personal use to simply pay the money back once someone catches their crime. And given all the other nefarious changes House members have tried to sneak into law over the past year, I fear that I have overlooked some more gremlins that are buried within the convoluted 22-page amendment.

The House is expected to decide this week whether to take the bill it passed last year into conference committee with the Senate or replace it with this amendment, which looks to all the world like a step backwards, or with some other proposal yet to be seen.

One member of the Judiciary Committee told me that he went to the committee meeting ready to insist on an independent enforcement mechanism, but quickly decided it was hopeless. So he gave up and voted for the amendment, as did every other member of the panel. Worn down. Worn out. The status quo wins again.

Others apparently were holding their fire for the battle on the House floor.

It’s a long shot. But it’s the only shot we’ve got.

Here’s what we need, and it’s an embarrassingly modest wish list, tailored to the scandalous reality of our status-quo state: a commission made up of members of the public — no legislators — to review legislative ethics reports and complaints and make its findings public if it finds problems.

I see no reason the governor shouldn’t appoint the commission, or why it couldn’t be the current State Ethics Commission, since it merely would investigate, and then hand its findings over to legislators to act as judge and jury.

But if legislators have to appoint some of the members, fine. As long as they can’t appoint legislators, and as long as the appointments are made by the full Legislature, rather than a couple of legislative leaders. A lot of senators, perhaps even a majority, support a plan along those lines

For that matter, if legislators have to appoint all the members, we could make that work. As long as they aren’t legislators, and as long as we include some conflict-of-interest provisions, so that, say, the speaker can’t appoint his brother — like he did to that panel that decides who gets to be a judge.

Ms. Scoppe can be reachedat cscoppe@thestate.comor at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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