Politics & Government

SC Senators: Ethics dead for the year

The state Senate polices its members just fine, senators said Wednesday, refusing to pass an ethics bill – Gov. Nikki Haley’s top priority for the year – that would end lawmakers’ practice of investigating ethics complaints against legislators.

But senators were pointed in their criticism of the GOP-controlled House’s ethics process, questioning its investigation last year of Republican Haley and its slowness to take up charges against Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

The Senate proved last week it should retain that responsibility when it investigated Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, on charges that he broke the law by spending campaign money on himself, said Senate Ethics chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry. Facing ouster from the Senate, Ford resigned and now faces a State Law Enforcement Division investigation.

“Is (the state’s current ethics law) broken in the Senate? I think last week was the perfect and the best evidence to show, flatly, no,” Rankin said late Wednesday as the Senate debated the bill.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said the bill is dead for the year, but lawmakers can take it up again next year. The Senate adjourned Wednesday after several hours of debate on the ethics bill, which ended without the body voting it up or down.

Tea Party-libertarian Republicans and some moderate Republicans, who make up a majority in the Senate, joined with Democrats in effectively killing the measure for the year.

However, Gov. Haley’s spokesman, Rob Godfrey, blamed minority-party Democrats.

“Senate Democrats said they were going to kill ethics reform this session, and they did,” Godfrey said, adding Republican Haley has “every confidence ethics reform will pass next year.”

The proposal – which would have forced legislators to disclose more about who pays them, and required secret political groups, which attack candidates, to register with the state and report their spending – showed signs of death rattles early this week, when Senate Democrats erupted in anger over a comment Godfrey made, tying the need for ethics reform to Ford.

Rankin echoed that unhappiness Wednesday, questioning the S.C. House’s commitment to investigating its own members, including Harrell, who SLED is investigating on campaign finance abuses, and Haley, who twice was accused and cleared of charges that she used her position as a state representative for financial gain.

“You might say, in the past, that they’ve (the House Ethics Committee) swept some things under the rug over there,” Republican Rankin said, questioning whether Haley’s hearing would have ended differently had the GOP-dominated House Ethics panel been more bipartisan in its membership.

State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said the Senate Ethics Committee also had proven it can take up ethics complaints quickly, having initiated the complaint against Ford in April. He doubted whether the S.C. Ethics Commission, which several senators said has been poorly funded, would be able to do the same.

“We’re being asked to trade in a working, speedy, transparent process for one that gives no notice, drags its feet, shows up on a Friday and says, ‘This is what’s going to happen,’ ” Hutto said.

Martin, who wanted the bill to pass this year, said the proposal would have gone far in restoring the public’s faith in lawmakers’ willingness to hold each other accountable.

The bill “is not so much about this S.C. Senate,” he said, but about where the state will be decades from now. “Regardless of who the people are involved, the system (must) protect the public,” he said.

Other senators resisted, saying other needed reforms are missing in the House-passed proposal that could be included with more time, including whistleblower protection for people who uncover government corruption, said state Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington.