SC lawmakers agree on ethics reform but ‘most important part ... not getting done’

jself@thestate.comJune 4, 2014 

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • The ethics bill

    What’s in it and what isn’t

    In the bill:

    •  Public officials and candidates, and their immediate family members, must disclose sources of private income

    •  Political action committees tied to lawmakers are banned

    •  Anonymous political groups must identify themselves and report campaign activities

    •  The timeframe is narrowed before an election when campaign contributions go unreported in an effort to shed light on who is influencing campaigns

    •  Lawmakers banned from using cash for campaign expenses

    •  Lawmakers must produce bank statements, if requested, for audits of their campaign finance records

    Not in the bill:

    •  Independent investigations for lawmakers, who now decide whether their fellow members have broken ethics laws

    •  Enhanced penalties for ethics violations

    •  Automatic filing of bank statements for audits of campaign accounts

    •  Requiring consultants to register and pay a fee with the state, like lobbyists

    •  Requiring lawmakers to sit out for longer than a year after leaving the Legislature, as current law requires, before they can become paid lobbyists

    •  Requiring disclosure of amounts of private income, in addition to sources

  • A timeline of ethics reform

    2010 – Then-Gov. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, agrees to pay a state record $74,000 in fines to settle 37 ethics charges related to his travel and campaign expenses

    March 2012 – Then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigns after he is indicted on more than 100 ethics violations

    May and June 2012 – The House Ethics Committee – made up of five Republicans and a Democrat – twice hears and clears Gov. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, of charges that she illegally lobbied and used her position as a state representative for personal financial gain

    August 2012 through January 2013 – Haley announces ethics reform as a top priority for the 2013 legislative session and appoints an ethics study commission. Haley’s ethics commission makes recommendations

    February 2013 – SLED launches investigation into House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, on allegations of campaign finance abuses

    April 2013 – S.C. House passes ethics reform proposal

    May 2013 – Senate Ethics Committee holds public hearings into allegations of campaign-finance abuse by state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, who resigns

    June 2013 – Ethics reform bill dies for the year, a day before lawmakers adjourn

    Jan. 13 – S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson refers Harrell case to the State Grand Jury

    Feb. 27 – Senate passes an ethics bill after changing it from House version to exclude independent oversight of lawmakers

    May 22 – House passes the bill again, this time with a different form of independent oversight that includes judges, stirring suspicion the changes are meant to kill the bill

    May 28 – House and Senate form conference committee to resolve differences in the competing ethics bills

    June 4 – The panel reaches an agreement

— After nearly two years of wrangling, S.C. lawmakers are poised to reform the state’s ethics laws. But missing from the proposal – lauded by supporters as the state’s most significant ethics reform in two decades – is a change that ethics watchdogs said was the most needed of all.

Despite efforts to create an independent committee to review ethics complaints against lawmakers, members of the House and Senate will continue to investigate their own members – a system that critics describe as the “fox guarding the henhouse.”

Independent oversight was not included in the ethics proposal agreed upon Wednesday by a panel of three House and three Senate members. The proposal, setting new rules for how public officials and political campaigns must act, still needs approval from the House and Senate before heading to Gov. Nikki Haley for consideration.

Haley would not say whether she will veto the bill if it does not include independent oversight, saying she wanted first to review it. But the former legislator added that ending the practice of lawmakers policing themselves remains a top priority.

“It is a dangerous thing when we have legislators overseeing other legislators. We’ve said that for a very long time. There is a clear conflict of interest,” Haley said Tuesday.

Lawmakers spent more than a year debating what independent oversight would look like.

Last year, the House passed a bill that included an independent committee to investigate lawmakers. But the Senate struck that arrangement, touting its investigation of former state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, on ethics violations – and his subsequent resignation – as evidence that body can police its own members.

Subsequently, the House changed its version of independent oversight to include investigating judges, a controversial addition late in the debate that critics said could kill the bill.

Sens. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, and Luke Rankin, R-Horry, both on the House-Senate ethics conference panel, said the Senate would not approve of any plan this year that changes the way lawmakers are investigated.

However, advocates held out hope Wednesday that legislators could adopt independent oversight next year.

The panel also rejected a proposal that lawmakers be required to file bank statements with their quarterly campaign finance reports.

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, said that requirement could help Ethics Committee attorneys identify problems and help lawmakers correct them before they recur, year after year. For example, Ford’s case could have been headed off and his penalties made less severe if the Senate Ethics Committee had conducted regular audits of lawmakers’ campaign filings, Hayes said.

But House members on the panel, including Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, and Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, said those bank statements would present a security risk. Handling statements for the House’s 124 members also would create an unmanageable workload, they said.

While lawmakers agreed Wednesday to raise the fee for registered lobbyists to $200 a year from $100, they rejected requiring consultants to register with the state and pay a fee. Hutto said consultants are just like lobbyists, paid to influence the outcome of legislation, but do not have to pay a fee or register, like lobbyists.

But Delleney said he received complaints from companies who send consultants to the State House and the provision was rejected.

Supporters, including Haley, have praised some changes that would take effect if the proposal becomes law. For example:

•  Candidates and public officials, and their immediate family members, would have to disclose their private sources of income in addition to public income that they already report.

•  Candidates would have to report their campaign activity five days before an election, shedding additional light on a candidate’s supporters and their causes before voters cast their ballots.

•  Anonymous political groups that attack candidates would have to report their campaign activity again. That reporting requirement went away when the state Supreme Court ruled the state’s definition of “committee” was unconstitutional.

•  Lawmakers could no longer use cash for campaign expenses and would be required to use checks, debit or credit cards, or other traceable methods of payment when making campaign purchases.

But the lawmakers who negotiated Wednesday’s compromise left out several other proposed reforms, including increased penalties for violations.

If Haley vetoes the bill, it would cripple a reform effort that both the Republican and her Democratic rival in November, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, have made central to their campaigns.

Haley made reforming the state’s two-decade-old ethics law a priority in late 2012.

The move followed several high-profile ethics cases, including one against Haley who was cleared twice by the House Ethics Committee of charges that she illegally lobbied while a Lexington state representative.

Haley formed a committee of ethics experts – made up of lawmakers, members of the public and two former S.C. attorneys general – to recommend ways to improve the ethics law.

Now, more than a year later, lawmakers are looking to another panel to look at the law again.

The bill approved Wednesday authorizes the formation of a study committee – made up of four prosecutors and four public defenders – that will review all existing ethics laws, decide which violations should be criminal or civil violations and recommend additional changes to the General Assembly.

That panel could address the lack of clarity in state ethics law, said Lynn Teague with the good-government S.C. League of Women Voters group.

Lawmakers have some reasonable concerns about whether a typographical error, for example, could be deemed a criminal offense, Teague said. But, she added, continuing the debate on ethics next year again will be a priority.

“The most important part is not getting done this year.”

Reach Self at (803) 771-8658.

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