Politics & Government

State House for Sale: How SC ethics reform died

Gov. Nikki Haley – cleared by the S.C. House of allegations of violating state ethics laws – flew to Charleston last August to announce that ethics reform would be her cause in the 2013 legislative session.

Haley wasn’t alone in her interest in the subject.

The Republican-controlled S.C. House and Senate announced ethics reform efforts, too. Public interest and good government groups signed on, and Haley named a blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission. It recommended tougher income disclosure requirements for legislators, requiring secret political groups to report their activities and – perhaps most important – ending the practice of lawmakers investigating ethics complaints against lawmakers.

After scandals that had embroiled former Gov. Mark Sanford, led to the resignation of Lt. Gov. Ken Ard and, this year, added an investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell, the momentum was clear: South Carolina soon would get tougher laws governing elected officials.

Last week, that effort failed in the state Senate, dying at least for 2013.

What went wrong?

Republican Haley blames Democrats, a minority in the majority-GOP Senate, saying they blocked the most meaningful ethics-reform effort in two decades.

Democrats blame a rush job on a flawed proposal that only arrived in the Senate in May and – more damaging, some say – a lack of political skills by Haley and her staff.

After a last-minute deal had been struck to ensure Senate debate – and possibly a vote – on the reform proposal, ethics charges against state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, flared in public. Accused by the Senate Ethics Committee of hundreds of campaign abuses, Ford resigned rather than face expulsion from the Senate.

Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey responded by saying the case against Ford was an example of why South Carolina needed ethics reform.

Any chance of the bipartisanship needed to pass ethics reform promptly imploded.

“If you want to know why we need ethics reform, perhaps Mr. Godfrey should have went downstairs and looked at somebody he’s real familiar with,’’ state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, told the Senate Tuesday, referring to Haley, twice cleared by the House Ethics Committee of charges that she used her position as a Lexington state representative for personal financial gain.

Jackson and others – including a Tea Party-libertarian Republican Senate coalition that wanted, instead of ethics reform, a vote on a proposal to outlaw the Affordable Care Act in South Carolina – recoiled from the ethics proposal, arguing the Senate had proven it could police itself effectively, casting doubt on the need for reform.

As opposition mounted, the ethics bill ran into its final, fatal hurdle – its timing, said state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, acclaimed as the Legislature’s “dean of ethics.”

“Nothing controversial gets passed in the last two weeks of the session,” Hayes said last week, after the proposal had failed.

The question now is whether ethics reform will be revived next year.

It should, watchdog groups and some lawmakers agree.

In their debate, state senators openly decried the ethics procedure in the S.C. House as broken.

But critics say the Senate process is not much better.

“It’s not a convincing argument to say ... they (legislators) don’t need some kind of investigative process on the outside,” said John Crangle, director of S.C. Common Cause, a watchdog group that pushed for ending the practice of lawmakers investigating their colleagues.

The Senate’s ouster of Ford – cited repeatedly by senators as proof that the Senate’s ethics process works – proves nothing to critics.

Ford’s activities had been questionable for years, and the Senate only acted this year, said Crangle. And, unlike the sometimes-erratic Ford, the Legislature has yet to prove it will act against a powerful legislator, said Ashley Landess, director of the libertarian S.C. Policy Council think tank.

A campaign cause

Charleston was Haley’s first stop on a state tour in August to roll out a list of ethics reforms.

With state Attorney General Alan Wilson, R-Lexington, by her side, Haley called for shedding more light on lawmakers’ income and work, and ending the practice of lawmakers policing themselves.

While she had been cleared of wrongdoing by the House Ethics Committee, Haley immediately was criticized for hijacking the issue from lawmakers.

“If we had these reforms in place before Governor Haley committed her actions, she would probably still be meeting with the attorney general, only in a different place,” House Speaker Harrell, now the subject of a SLED investigation into alleged campaign abuses, said in a statement at the time.

Haley formed a committee to study ethics, appointing former attorneys general, lawmakers and representatives of the legal, media and business communities. The commission held hearings and took testimony. In January, it made nearly two dozen recommendations, including ending the practice of the House and Senate policing their own members.

“The commission surprised us by being very effective and bold, and taking a strong position,” said Policy Council director Landess.

Drafted in secret

Then, came the waiting.

In February, Hayes, dubbed the “dean of ethics” for his work on the state’s last big ethics reform push 20 years ago, introduced a bill proposing several reforms. Those proposals were followed by a few other Senate bills, smaller in scope.

In April, the House introduced a bill to serve as the vehicle for ethics reform. Drawing suspicion, a House panel took up the bill for debate before the public had a chance to read it.

House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, said the bill was a combination of two bills that already had been introduced and were available for public review. He said the House bill was the result of negotiations between Haley’s office, and lawmakers of both parties in the House and Senate.

When the bill was made public, it decriminalized ethics violations, drawing the ire of watchdog groups.

The bill, with the criminal penalties reinstated, passed the House at the end of April, shifting the onus of passing a bill onto the Senate. In early May, a Senate subcommittee took up the bill in a marathon meeting that resulted in several changes.

Taking to the stump

With the Senate yet to vote, however, Haley took to the bully pulpit, calling a press conference, surrounded mostly by other Republicans, to urge Senate Democrats to pass ethics reform.

“If we can get a group of Senate Democrats to come our way, this passes,” Haley said during the May 21 news conference. “This is not a partisan thing. This should be the issue of elected officials understand(ing) we work for the people and not the other way around – and we’re going to prove it by passing ethics reform this year.”

Democrats responded that ethics reform faced opposition from members of Haley’s own Republican Party – the William Wallace Caucus, a group of Tea Party-libertarian Senate Republicans who said a vote on a bill to outlaw Obamacare, not ethics reform, was their constituents’ top priority.

Roads and education, the Democrats added, were more important to their constituents, than ethics.

The press conference was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, Haley’s presumed opponent in the 2014 governor’s race and a supporter of ethics reform.

“The bridges (between Haley and legislators) really weren’t built,” Sheheen said, adding ethics reform became a “political football.”

Sheheen spent the session performing a balancing act – one of the few Senate Democrats publicly pushing senators to pass ethics reform this year, while, at the same time, using the issue to take swipes at Haley.

Haley rejects any charges of partisanship on her part on the issue, said Godfrey, her spokesman. The governor repeatedly said ethics was a non-partisan issue, he added.

“(Haley) singled out opponents of the bill, regardless of party,” Godfrey said. “It just happens that most of the opponents were Senate Democrats.”

Poisoning the well?

Robert Ford’s Senate seat barely had time to cool off before his fate became political fodder.

It all happened quickly. Ford attended the first day of hearings in his Senate Ethics Committee case after which, Sen. Jackson said, fellow senators leveled with him: He had to resign.

“When you’re looking at someone who is an adult man crying in your arms because of a decision he knew he would have to make, that was tough,” Jackson said.

Ford agreed to resign.

But his first resignation letter set the effective date as being at the end of the session, Thursday. Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, and Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, urged Ford to change his resignation date to “effective immediately.” Ford agreed.

Shortly after that announcement, Haley spokesman Godfrey made the comment that dissolved any momentum building in the Senate toward consensus on ethics reform, said state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland.

Democrats erupted after Godfrey, acknowledging Ford’s service to the state, said Ford’s case was an example of why the state needs ethics reform.

Despite the damning evidence against Ford, Senate Democrats scoffed at Godfrey’s comment, saying it was “kicking a guy when he’s down.”

“The well has been poisoned right now,” Sen. Lourie said.

The Ford effect

Using what little time remained for reaching consensus, Senate Ethics Committee chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry, suggested a new reason why the ethics proposal should wait until January: Robert Ford.

Rankin asked whether the Senate should support the bill’s proposal to take from lawmakers the responsibility of investigating ethics complaints against legislators – one of several changes the bill would make and, many argue, the most important. The Senate Ethics Committee’s quick, decisive investigation against Ford, who now faces a State Law Enforcement Division investigation, was proof the Senate could police its own, he said.

Sens. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, and Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, Senate Finance chairman, weighed in, supporting Rankin. The discussion shifted toward whether the proposed state ethics commission could handle ethics complaints or, for that matter, police lawmakers if it did not have the budget necessary to increase audits of campaign finance reports.

Bringing debate to an end, Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, pointed Wednesday to 40 amendments to the ethics bill awaiting debate, adding more were waiting. Debate alone could last more than 13 hours, running the clock out on ethics reform and everything else, he said, asking the body to move on.

‘They threw someone under the bus’

Some critics said the bill needed more time to be vetted.

Others disagree, including Sen. Hayes – who said senators had time to give input in the committee process – and Haley.

The Senate and House bills fall short of the recommendations made by Haley’s commission. But they got close enough, Haley spokesman Godfrey said, when asked whether the governor would support waiting to get more reforms in the bill.

“There’s never a perfect bill, and there never will be,” Godfrey said. “This bill was miles better than the status quo. Everyone had more than enough time to work on it – delay is just an excuse for inaction, and South Carolina deserves better.”

Watchdog groups say the Ford hearings are not evidence the Senate’s ethics process works and does not need reform.

“You don’t want institutions to function depending primarily on the personalities of the people in positions of power,” Crangle said. “Sen. Robert Ford, he was there for 20 years, and he’s been doing a lot of stuff for a long time ... and nobody said anything about it until the last couple months.”

Crangle asked why the Senate Ethics Committee had not brought charges against Ford earlier, when Sens. Leatherman or Hayes were chairing the committee.

“Why did it happen now, when there was a big push for an ethics bill and when the governor was harping on it? Then, the Senate suddenly wakes itself up from its sleep and goes after Ford.”

Hayes, who chaired the Senate Ethics Committee before Rankin, said the committee, which brought the charges against Ford, did not have the power to bring complaints against its own members until recently. Previously, he added, the committee could not act “just because somebody, for years, may have suspected that Ford was doing that. There were no complaints.”

Landess, with the Policy Council, said Ford is different than other lawmakers who have been accused of ethics violations – including Harrell, who wields great power in the House.

“They threw someone under the bus who has no power,” Landess said of the Senate. “They cannot say that they have always taken care of business.

“They have not,” said Landess, whose group filed the ethics allegations against Harrell. “I’m not saying they shouldn’t have done what they did with Sen. Ford – good for them.

“Let’s see if they would police their own leadership.”

Ethics reform: 2010 to today

A timeline

2010 – Then-Gov. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, agrees to pay a state record $74,000 in fines to settle 37 ethics charges related to his travel and campaign expenses.

March 2012 – Then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigns after he is indicted on more than 100 ethics violations.

May and June 2012 – The House Ethics Committee – five Republicans and a Democrat – twice hears and clears Gov. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, of charges that she illegally lobbied and used her position as a state representative for personal financial gain.

August 2012 – Haley announces ethics reform as a top priority for the 2013 legislative session.

October 2012 – Haley appoints an ethics study commission.

January – Haley’s ethics commission makes recommendations.

February – SLED launches a still-ongoing investigation into House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, on allegations of campaign finance abuses.

April 30 – S.C. House passes ethics reform proposal.

May 7 – Confounding those who say his past ethics woes will sink his candidacy, Sanford, running as a budget hawk, wins a special election to fill a congressional vacancy in South Carolina’s 1st District.

May 9 – A Senate panel revises the House bill.

May 13 – The revised ethics bill is added to the Senate’s calendar.

May 30-31 – Senate Ethics Committee holds public hearings into allegations of campaign-finance abuse by state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, who resigns. Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey cites Ford case as evidence of need for ethics reform.

June 4 – State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, angered by Godfrey’s comments, says Haley is the reason South Carolina needs ethics reform.

June 5 – Ethics reform bill dies for the year, a day before lawmakers adjourn.