John Crangle argued in his Sunday guest column that we no longer need to argue for an independent commission to investigate ethics violations by legislators. He claims that we can now be assured that all serious cases will be appropriately handled, thanks to the S.C. Supreme Court ruling in the Bobby Harrell case this summer, affirming the independent authority of the attorney general in criminal cases. There are very important reasons to dispute this assertion.
The League of Women Voters has a simple test to evaluate the process of ethics investigation and enforcement. Any part of the process that is secret must be independent. Any part that is conducted by colleagues of the accused must be public. The Senate’s Rankin amendment fails this test, even given the attorney general’s constitutional authority.
Most violations of the ethics act can be either civil or criminal, depending on evidence of criminal intent. This essential evidence often can be found only through extensive professional investigation. Citizens cannot be expected to provide it. The Harrell case is an excellent example. Despite unusually thorough documentation provided by the S.C. Policy Council in its initial complaint, SLED required almost a year for investigation, and it was the SLED investigation that found the evidence of criminal intent by then-House Speaker Harrell.
In theory, independent investigation could be provided if all ethics cases, large and small, were referred to the attorney general for thorough initial investigation. However, actually using this approach would require substantial staff resources, in essence a miniature Ethics Commission within the office of the attorney general. Given the General Assembly’s reception to the attorney general’s far more modest proposal for a public integrity unit, there is no reason to expect that this would meet with legislators’ approval.
Finally, and perhaps most important, civil cases are not “trivial.” The vast majority of ethics cases will continue to be civil. Some will be minor; others very serious. We cannot simply write off civil ethics cases as insignificant and abandon attempts to ensure that they will be handled in a transparent and accountable way.
The League of Women Voters of South Carolina finds that the evidence is overwhelming that adequate ethics reform must include statutory provision for independent investigation of ethics complaints against legislators.
S.C. League of Women Voters