Cindi Ross Scoppe

Is ethics delay just Senate sluggishness, or sabotage?

sbloom@theolympian.com

IT IS PROBABLY not the case, as it appears from the outside, that someone in the Senate is still determined to prevent outside eyes from prying into his ethics. Or several someones.

It is probably just a case of senators working on Senate time. Compounded by the fact that the governor and the House were working on something akin to Senate time, showing little regard for an April 1 deadline that was written into state law a year ago.

Senate Republican Leader Shane Massey is probably right when he predicts that when the Legislature returns to Columbia today to pass the budget, the Senate will confirm the members of the commission that will investigate legislators’ ethics. The commission that was supposed to begin that task on April 1, after years of resistance in … the Senate.

Indeed, it felt more like a love-in than a confirmation hearing when the Senate Judiciary Committee finally got around to screening the first members of the reconstituted State Ethics Commission. (That was on May 9, 38 days after they were supposed to take office.) Sen. Massey, who was not one of the senators who resisted the outside investigators, tells me the Senate has just been trying to make sure it does a good job vetting the nominees, which meant running down a few details about their backgrounds to make sure everything checked out.

So things will probably be just fine. The Senate will probably vote unanimously to confirm the commissioners, and the panel will get to work, just a few months late.

But this bears watching, because the Senate has that history of being, let us say, less than enthusiastic about the idea of anyone other than senators looking into senators’ compliance with the state ethics law.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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You’ll recall that it was the Senate that held out year after year, refusing to let an independent entity investigate senators’ compliance with the law. Not find them guilty or innocent, mind you. Not determine their judgment if found guilty. Just investigate them. (Prosecutors have always had this power, but most ethics violations — even some that can get legislators kicked out of the Legislature — are not criminal violations.)

Finally, the Senate agreed to reconstitute the Ethics Commission and, with a lot more fine print than should have been necessary, let that commission instigate and investigate complaints against senators and representatives.

Maybe, at least until senators confirm the commissioners, we should assume that all 50 complaints are against senators.

If a super-majority of the commission finds probable cause that an ethics-law violation occurred, it sends its findings to the House or Senate Ethics committee, which can either dismiss the complaint or hold a public hearing. The legislative committee still decides whether the senator or representative violated the law. If the legislator violated the law, the legislative committee still decides the punishment.

Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work. It only works that way if we have commissioners.

Charleston’s Post & Courier reports that since the new commission was supposed to be seated on April 1, the Ethics Commission staff has found more than 50 complaints that it believes should proceed but can’t until it gets an OK from commissioners who aren’t commissioners yet. Statistically speaking, most of those complaints are probably about all those other people that the old Ethics Commission policed before legislators were added to its duties: statewide elected and appointed officials, state and local government employees, local elected and appointed officials. But we don’t know that, so maybe — at least until senators confirm the commissioners — we should assume that all 50 complaints are against senators.

Relatively speaking, a delay of two or three months is a hiccup.

To be fair, neither the House nor the governor was in any hurry to appoint commissioners — four named by the governor and one each by the House Republicans, House Democrats, Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats. Gov. Henry McMaster didn’t name his nominees until March 28 — four days before they were supposed to start work. Senators and representatives made their appointments shortly thereafter, but then the Senate Democrats’ initial nominee had to be replaced for health reasons, adding another delay.

All the names were in and confirmed by the House on May 4. The Senate Judiciary Committee held that love-in hearing on May 9, but because lawmakers shortened the legislative session, senators have met only three days since then; Sen. Massey said a last-minute question prevented the planned vote on the last of those three days.

Ethics reformers have been trying for decades to have someone other than senators and representatives investigate senators and representatives, so relatively speaking, a delay of two or three months is a hiccup. It won’t prevent anyone from being investigated or punished if needed; it won’t even keep potentially embarrassing information hidden until after an election, since this isn’t an election year.

So none of this will be an actual problem — if the Senate confirms the commissioners when the Legislature returns to Columbia.

If it doesn’t do that, then we need to find out just who in the Senate is still determined not to have any outside eyes prying into his ethics. And why.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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