SC House reform proposal weakens state ethics laws

abeam@thestate.comApril 19, 2013 

— If state lawmakers use their campaign accounts to pay their personal expenses, it would no longer be a crime, according to a proposed ethics reform bill that has passed the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill – written in secret and not made public until Thursday evening, after the committee already had approved it – comes as the State Law Enforcement Division is investigating allegations House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, has spent campaign contributions on personal items.

Harrell is a co-sponsor of the reform bill. But Harrell said Friday that the proposed change in the law would not benefit him, and some lawmakers vowed to change the proposal.

“As the speaker of the House, I co-sponsor all legislation that is part of the House Republican Caucus’ agenda,” Harrell said in a statement Friday. “Ethics reform is a priority for the caucus, and I support Representative Murrell Smith’s ongoing efforts to craft a no-nonsense, strong ethics reform package.

“Of course, as in all legislation, it would not take effect until after the governor signs it into law. The requirements of the current ethics law would stand until the new law takes effect. There would be no attempt to make any of the provisions of the new law retroactive, and I would oppose any effort to do so.”

Several Republican lawmakers said Friday that they were unaware the bill would strip criminal penalties out of most of the state’s ethics laws, saying they thought the reform proposal removed criminal penalties for only minor violations – such as filing a campaign disclosure form late by a day.

Smith, R-Sumter, the bill’s primary sponsor, said he would work to amend the bill to reinstate criminal penalties for some offenses. State Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, a member of the House Judiciary subcommittee that vetted the bill, also vowed to amend it on the House floor next week.

“I don’t think it was anyone’s intent to take a knowingly and willful violation of the law – converting campaign funds to personal use – and say that is OK,” Smith said.

But government watchdog groups – including Common Cause, the League of Women Voters of South Carolina and the S.C. Policy Council – were furious Friday, especially because the full text of the bill only was made public after legislative committees had approved it.

“They are attempting to decriminalize most of the ethics violations, which we think is a very bad thing,” said Lynn Teague, advocacy director for the League of Women Voters. “This explains why this bill didn’t make it to the public sooner.”

Lawmakers said they could not wait for the bill – a mash-up of two other bills and a report from Gov. Nikki Haley’s ethics study commission – to be drafted before they voted on it. Next week is the last week that House lawmakers can send a bill to the Senate and meet the May 1 “crossover” deadline. Any proposal sent to the Senate after May 1 would require a two-thirds vote just to be debated, which makes passage unlikely.

“That whole process bothered me,” Quinn said Friday of this week’s rushed passage of the much-anticipated ethics reform bill, which follows controversies involving Harrell, Haley, former Gov. Mark Sanford and former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, who resigned last year. “We were faced with doing it this way or making it so we couldn’t get any bill this year on (ethics).”

Violating any aspect of the current ethics law is a crime – from bribery to filling out the wrong form. The proposed reform bill would eliminate the language that makes violations a crime with three exceptions: bribery, releasing confidential information for financial gain and using a public office to make money. But by eliminating the language that made all ethics violations crimes, the reform proposal stripped criminal penalties from most violations.

“We asked very specifically about what the changes were in terms of decriminalization, and the response was, ‘Only technical violations’ ” would be affected, said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, a member of the subcommittee that vetted the bill. “I was very upset to learn about some significant changes that I think weaken and water down significantly the strength of our ethics laws.”

There are other problems with the ethics reform proposal, too, critics said Friday.

Rep. James Smith said he already has called the S.C. Legislative Council, which writes legislation, and asked it to prepare amendments to restore criminal penalties to some ethics violations. The House is scheduled to debate the bill next week.

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