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:
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.”