Gov. Nikki Haley and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, both have been outspoken advocates of ethics reform for state government. But with the sniping between the two, it is hard to recall that they both have shared similar views on this issue.
Sheheen plans to run against Haley for governor in 2014, and campaign politics have fueled much of the back-and-forth accusations between the two camps. We wish, however, that they could put political ambitions aside long enough to advocate a compromise over necessary ethics reforms.
The House passed an ethics bill in May, but a Senate version of the bill bogged down near the end of the session, and senators failed to meet the June 6 deadline to pass it. Both Democrats and Republicans pointed fingers, blaming each other for stalling the bill.
The Senate will consider the bill again when lawmakers return to Columbia in January. But senators again could balk at changing the rules regarding who would investigate alleged ethics violations.
The bill would require lawmakers to disclose their income sources and end the practice of legislators investigating their colleagues. Instead of the House and Senate ethics committees enforcing ethics laws, the task would go to a revamped state Ethics Commission.
But the bill has a key caveat: the legislative panels still would decide on the punishment for those who break ethics rules.
The Senate bill does not go far enough. The Ethics Commission, which under the bill would include appointees from the speaker of the House and the president pro tem of the Senate, should instead be completely independent of the Legislature. Lawmakers also should not have the authority to choose the punishment.
And while the bill would require lawmakers to disclose all sources of personal income, it doesn’t require them to disclose the amount.
But Haley apparently believes a watered-down bill is better than none. Last week she called on lawmakers to send her an ethics reform bill and threatened lawmakers who oppose the bill with political vengeance.
“If there is a legislator who blinks, who stalls, who tries to avoid or hijack any part of this, that is a red flag that will be exposed. ...We will make sure we cross this over the finish line,” she said last week.
Sheheen and members of the state Democratic Party blasted Haley, accusing her of hypocrisy. Haley has been accused of several ethics violations, although she has been cleared each time by the House ethics committee and the state Ethics Commission.
Currently she is embroiled in controversy over her use of a security detail while attending a fundraiser in North Carolina. Sheheen and fellow Democrats have called for her to reimburse the state for the expenses.
Sheheen, a practicing lawyer, also has come under fire for trying cases before magistrates he supported when they were appointed. While that is not currently against the state’s ethics rules, Haley’s team said it causes people to lose faith in the criminal justice system and Sheheen to drop clients with cases before any of the magistrates he supported.
Sheheen actually has sponsored legislation that would use Supreme Court suggestions for magistrate candidates instead of recommendations by senators from each county. But the bill has gone nowhere.
Maybe Haley and Sheheen, in a show of nonpartisanship, could put political differences aside long enough to help push through ethics reforms. For now, though, the accusations of hypocrisy may be too valuable as campaign fodder for both of them.
That’s too bad. Ethics legislation, even a watered-down version, could use the support of these two prominent figures.
Whatever ethical lapses either Haley or Sheheen might have had in the past, that does not preclude supporting ethics reform, which ranks as one of the state’s top legislative priorities. This effort is too important to fall victim to partisan bickering.