Nearly a quarter of the 82 bills pre-filed Thursday in the S.C. House of Representatives centered on ethics, including a proposal to strengthen the state’s whistleblower law.
The proposal would remove the $2,000 cap on a reward that whistleblowers could receive and eliminate the $15,000 cap on legal fees.
“It recognizes that state employees who step forward ... reporting wrongdoing or abuse in state government should be protected,” said state Rep. Laurie Funderburk, D-Kershaw, who filed the bill.
The bill was one of 19 that emerged from the the ethics study committee created by Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, after former Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, was charged with misusing campaign money for personal expenses. Subsequently, Harrell entered a guilty plea and resigned.
Never miss a local story.
Funderburk said the changes to the whistleblower law would create incentives for public-sector employees to report abuse and wrongdoing in government.
The existing reward, capped at $2,000, may not be enough for a worker to come forward and jeopardize their job, Funderburk said.
“It’s in the interest of us, the policymakers, and of taxpayers to make sure that government is running correctly and that our taxpayer dollars aren’t being wasted with abuse or wrongdoing in government,” she said, adding state employees are the eyes and ears of lawmakers.
Whistleblowers who are fired now can sue for lost wages. Funderburk’s proposal would allow them also to collect lost compensation for health care or retirement benefits.
“The current whistleblower statue in South Carolina has a number of deficiencies, one of which is a severe limitation on the damages an individual can recover,” Lucas said. “Obviously, we want to encourage people to step forward and identify public misconduct.”
Government watchdog John Crangle of Common Cause said the existing cap on rewards is arbitrary, preventing state employees who report corruption from recovering what they were entitled to.
“They would recover so little but they would risk so much,” he said.
Other ethics bills filed Thursday would:
• Restructure the S.C. Ethics Commission to investigate all ethics complaints against public officials;
• Put some ethics violations under the state’s criminal code, including accepting bribes and using campaign money for personal expenses;
• Require public officials to report all sources of private income, but not the amount, on their statement of economic interest.