SC lawmakers vow ethics reform

House, Senate panels to take up issue highlighted by Ard and Haley probes

10/04/2012 12:00 AM

10/04/2012 12:28 AM

S.C. lawmakers will have three committees looking at new ethics legislation, joining efforts by Gov. Nikki Haley and the state attorney general to repair the state’s laws that govern politicians.

House Republicans and Democrats will have separate groups studying the issue. The state Senate will have a bi-partisan committee hold public hearings.

Ethics became a hot-button issue when Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned in May after pleading guilty to using campaign money for personal purchases. The issue flared again when the House Ethics Committee heard allegations in June that Haley had used her office for personal gain while a state representative from Lexington County. The first-term Republican governor was cleared of the allegations.

“Public trust has to be established,” said House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington. “We have to remove the fox from guarding the henhouse.”

The first House meetings could come in the next two weeks.

House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-Calhoun, said Democrats plan to open to the public the meetings of their six-member committee studying the issue. A chairman has not been named.

Bingham said Republicans will leave the decision on whether to open their ethics meetings to their committee’s chairman, state Rep. Murrell Smith of Sumter. The GOP group will have nine or 11 members.

Ott said he wanted the House Democratic Caucus to name its own separate committee because, in the GOP-controlled House, “the only way the Democrats have a say is doing our thing.” After the Democratic and Republican committees meet a few times, House party leaders expect to compare notes. The plan is to create one House bill, Ott said. “It’s a new experiment.”

Meanwhile, Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, has appointed a five-member committee – three Republicans and two Democrats – and charged it with making sweeping ethics changes, like those made after the Operation Lost Trust scandal in the 1990s, when lawmakers were videotaped swapping money for votes.

Senate Ethics Committee chairman Wes Hayes, R-York, heads the special committee that will hold three public hearings across the state between the Nov. 6 election and when the General Assembly convenes in January.

“This will help get the public more involved,” Hayes said. “We need to have strong enforcement.”

All the committees expect to get input from the state attorney general’s office on their suggestions for changing the ethics laws.

In August, Haley crossed the state with Attorney General Alan Wilson to pitch a reform plan that included requiring lawmakers to disclose their income and the income of immediate family members, and having the State Ethics Commission hear all ethics allegations. House and Senate committees now hear allegations against legislators.

The governor’s office is willing to work with lawmakers, spokesman Rob Godfrey said. “Ethics reform is badly needed, and anything that moves the ball forward is good news.”

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