All ethics complaints against S.C. lawmakers would be investigated by a restructured S.C. Ethics Commission as part of a proposal passed by a House ethics panel Tuesday.
A separate proposal, adopted by the panel, clearly defines some ethics violations as crimes, removing confusion about whether violations – including using campaign money for personal expenses – are crimes or civil violations.
The House committee was created by Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, after former speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, was charged with misusing campaign money. Subsequently, Harrell entered a guilty plea and resigned. The full House ethics reform committee will meet Monday to take up the proposed changes.
The proposals come just before the legislative session begins in January. Lawmakers are expected to take up proposals to toughen the state’s ethics laws during the session.
Under the proposal adopted Tuesday, any ethics complaint made against any public official, employee or judge would be sent to the S.C. Ethics Commission. Instead of eight members appointed by the governor, the revamped Ethics Commission would have 12 members – four appointed by the governor, four elected by the Supreme Court, two elected by the House and two elected by the state Senate.
The Ethics Commission would investigate all complaints, something now done by the House and Senate ethics committees, first to determine whether the complaint is civil or criminal.
Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, R-York – the House panel’s chairman and a former state solicitor who gained national attention for prosecuting Union child murderer Susan Smith 20 years ago – said having the Ethics Commission investigate allegations would be an improvement.
“What I think we lack sometimes (with the House and Senate ethics committees) is a full and thorough investigation,” said Pope, a former member of the House Ethics Committee.
Under the House proposal, if the Ethics Commission finds probable cause that a crime may have occurred, it would call in state prosecutors.
S.C. Ethics Commission executive director Herb Hayden said Tuesday if commission investigators find criminal intent, they would notify the attorney general’s office or the local solicitor if a local official was involved. Those prosecutors would give the Ethics Commission guidance about how to conduct its investigation, he said.
Hayden said Ethics Commission investigations are conducted the same way the State Law Enforcement Division would investigate a crime. The commission does an investigative report “almost identical to a SLED report,” Hayden said, and then submits it to a prosecutor.
If a complaint against a legislator was found to be a possible civil violation, the Ethics Commission would present its findings to the House or Senate ethics committees, which then would decide how to penalize the lawmaker.
The House panel adopted the proposals after Attorney General Alan Wilson, R-Lexington, told lawmakers that he wanted independent investigators – not legislative committees – investigating allegations against legislators.
Wilson, who started the investigation into former Speaker Harrell, said lawmakers should not be fearful that prosecutors are “driven by a sense that we want to take a civil infraction and use it to beat someone over the head.”
“We’re not in the business of doing witch hunts,” Wilson said, adding prosecutors look instead for criminal intent. “We do not prosecute mistakes. We do not prosecute bookkeeping errors. We do not prosecute … even temporary lapses in judgment.”
Ethics reform advocate Lynn Teague of the League of Women Voters said she was impressed with the work the House panel has done, trying to draw a distinction between civil and criminal offenses, and authorizing independent investigations of lawmakers.
Pope said he is confident his panel’s proposals will pass the House. But he would not predict what would happen in the Senate, where an ethics reform proposal died last session.
Some senators oppose independent investigations of ethics complaints, saying the state Constitution requires legislators to police other lawmakers.
Pope also said legislative attention to the ethics reform issue has detracted from other needed reforms.
“This is important,” he said. “But it’s really slowing us down for the work we need to be doing — whether it’s roads or education or (Social Services) or any of those other issues.”