The S.C. Ethics Commission is considering new binding legal opinions that could impact a probe into possible violations by S.C. lawmakers in the wake of the corruption case against former House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
The commission discussed opinions Wednesday whether legislators can spend contributions on campaign services that they or their relatives run, and whether House Majority leaders can send legislative caucus business to their own firms. The panel did not make a final decision.
An opinion issued in December by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office found both practices were legal, which was seen by government watchdogs as hurting the investigation into conduct by legislators.
Lawyers defending legislators could point to opinions from the Attorney General’s office and the S.C. Ethics Commission to aid their cases.
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First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe’s office, which is investigating lawmakers named in a State Law Enforcement Division report, said it thought those practices under investigation were illegal and sought a nonbinding opinion from the Attorney General’s Office.
While the actions of state lawmakers are not the responsibility of the S.C. Ethics Commission, members wanted to develop their own opinion after the Attorney General’s office weighed in.
The commission generally agreed with the Attorney General’s office opinion that candidates can hire a relative or a family business as long as they are being paid at market value, and they have a history doing the kind of work when hired.
Commissioners, however, raised concerns about the Attorney General’s opinion that said legislative caucuses were not part of official duties covered under state ethics laws, which was similar to a finding by the House Ethics Committee. Ethics violations by state lawmakers are handled by committees in the House and Senate.
Still, ethics commissioners questioned if the opinions might have broader consequences on more state politicians and wanted to take some time to consider it own opinion.
The ethics commission will suggest changes to the opinions and consider them again in May.
In the ongoing State House probe, lawmakers named as possible targets in the two-year-old SLED report have never been revealed publicly.
State Rep. Jim Merrill, a Berkeley Republican and former House majority leader, has been linked to the redacted portion of that SLED report. Several legislators pay family members to help with their campaigns.
The State House probe started with questions about the legality of some campaign expenses claimed by Harrell, who subsequently resigned and entered a guilty plea in 2014.
Investigators examined expenses of other lawmakers, but no additional legal action has been taken.
Pascoe, a Democrat, took over that investigation after Wilson, a Republican, recused himself, saying he might have a conflict of interest because of the legislators named in the SLED report.