LET’S STIPULATE that both Gov. Nikki Haley and her legislative critics have a point about ethics sunshine: The governor, having campaigned on a platform of transparency, should relinquish her statutory right to secrecy over any ethics complaint filed against her with the House Ethics Committee; and as we have long said and she has reiterated, the Legislature should eliminate those secrecy rights for itself.
Frankly, although she is being self-serving and hypocritical, the governor has a more important point, because there’s a lot more being hidden by the continued secrecy provisions of our state ethics law than by her refusal to waive confidentiality over any complaint against her.
After all, we pretty well know that an ethics complaint has been filed against her: State law forbids people from even acknowledging that they have filed a complaint, and former Board of Economic Advisors Chairman John Rainey is suddenly refusing to comment on whether he has filed one, as a court suggested he do when it dismissed his lawsuit against the governor. We also know the basic allegations: that as a House member, Ms. Haley unlawfully lobbied and voted on behalf of one and possibly two of her employers, and failed to list one of them on disclosure reports.
If the House Ethics Committee finds that the governor did anything seriously wrong, it will make that public, along with whatever punishment it chooses. If we never hear from the committee, then, after some period of time, we will know that it did nothing, and it will be up to us to determine whether that is appropriate. Judging from the fact that most of the allegations were public when Ms. Haley was elected governor, most people probably will have no problem with inaction.
But everybody should have a problem with the secrecy in which our political class has wrapped itself. The complaint against the governor is an anomaly. We usually don’t know when someone files a complaint against an elected official. And as long as the Legislature refuses to change the law, we likely will not know.
Since we only know about those complaints that result in public reprimands or worse, we have no way of knowing whether the House and Senate ethics committees and the State Ethics Commission are doing their jobs, or just covering up for errant politicians.
The Legislature did provide a tiny bit of sunshine to complaints against non-legislators, by requiring the State Ethics Commission to make them public if it finds probable cause to investigate; that still doesn’t tell us anything about the complaints that are dismissed, but it’s a start. And the Senate amended its internal rules to do likewise. But the House has refused to amend its own rules, so the only way we know whether the House Ethics Committee considers allegations against House members serious is if they choose to tell us so. That’s Haley-size hypocrisy.
As a start, the House should bring its own rules into compliance with the rules for senators and all other elected officials. But while that is essential, it is not enough. The Legislature needs to eliminate the veil of secrecy that shrouds elected officials’ alleged misdoings.
And Gov. Haley needs to start that process by waiving her own confidentiality — as her predecessor did when charges were brought against him. That will give her overdue call for ethics transparency the credibility and power that it currently lacks — and make it far more difficult for the Legislature to ignore.