Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and GOP S.C. House members disagreed Tuesday on whose version of ethics reform would actually kill it..
A plan the House Judiciary Committee OK’d Tuesday would create a panel made up of lawmakers, judges and appointees of the governor to conduct secret investigations into allegations against any public official, employee or judge.
The panel would have power to subpoena testimony and documents. If it finds any wrongdoing, the case would become public and be sent to existing ethics panels that police the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
Those panels – including the S.C. Ethics Commission, and the House and Senate Ethics committees – then would decide whether to issue a punishment, refer the case to law enforcement to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing or do nothing.
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Supporters say the new investigative panel would improve the integrity of the state’s oversight of public officials.
But Haley wants an independent body – made up of members of the public, not lawmakers – established to investigate public officials. Tuesday, her office said the House proposal leaves lawmakers too much in charge of their own oversight.
Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said the House proposal “does nothing to fix the actual problem – legislators investigating legislators. The governor hopes the full House will listen to the citizens of our state and do what is right: create a truly independent agency that exists to serve the public interest, not the interests of legislators.”
Haley has said the House proposal adds a “poison pill” to reform by including judges among those who could be investigated. That “brand new, controversial element” would ensure the bill would die, she has said.
House Judiciary Committee chairman Greg Delleney, R-Chester, countered that what Haley wants – an independent investigative body – is the real “poison pill” that will doom any chance of reform passing.
The Senate, in its version of the same ethics reform bill, already has rejected changes to its Senate Ethics Committee or any reduction of its powers, Delleney noted.
“She (Haley) wants us to adopt what the Senate has already rejected,” he said. “How this could be a poison pill and those (proposals) aren’t is beyond me.”
Lynn Teague, with the League of Women Voters, agrees with Haley that the House proposal is flawed.
The bill would create a secret panel whose members are made up of the bodies that they are supposed to investigate, she said. “Anything that is secret should be truly independent.”
If lawmakers are to conduct investigations, the process should be completely public, Teague added.
Watchdog groups are pushing for ethics reform as they watch a struggle play out in court between powerful House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, R-Lexington.
Wilson called on the State Grand Jury to investigate claims that Harrell violated state ethics laws by using his position and campaign money to benefit himself. Harrell’s attorneys responded by asking a judge to remove Wilson from the case, arguing the House Ethics Commission has the right to investigate its members first. The judge has not ruled yet in the case.
The ethics reform bill, which now goes to the full House for consideration, includes other updates to ethics laws, some that watchdog groups and lawmakers have supported, at least publicly, since last year:
Supporters say the bill would ban lawmakers from having ties to political action committees, require secret political groups to report their activities, strengthen reporting requirements for campaign donations made close to an election, and require lawmakers to disclose the sources of private income.
Other recent additions to the bill include allowing lawmakers to correct errors of under $2,000 in their campaign finance reporting within 30 days of filing without penalty. Another would allow elected officials to use campaign money to pay lodging, travel and food expenses for family members and staffers when that travel is connected to the lawmakers’ campaign or official responsibilities.
That has long been the practice, Delleney said.