Senators split on SC ethics reform

abeam@thestate.comJanuary 9, 2014 

— Ethics reform – the thorny issue embraced by the state’s candidates for governor but held at arms length by most rank-and-file legislators – will live or die on one issue when lawmakers return to Columbia next week: enforcement.

A bipartisan committee of seven state senators Thursday released its report on a House ethics bill, revealing it could not agree on who should investigate and prosecute lawmakers charged with ethics violations.

“We have reached an impasse on that,” said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, a member of the study committee. “We just have to resolve it on the floor.”

Now, lawmakers investigate each other. In the past two years, the House Ethics Committee has dismissed an ethics complaint against Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and punted rather than investigate charges against powerful House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

Critics say the state needs an independent ethics commission to investigate lawmakers to avoid the perception that they are getting special treatment from fellow legislators.

Others – including state Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, chairman of the ethics study committee – point to the Senate Ethics Committee’s investigation of state Sen. Robert Ford and the Charleston Democrat’s subsequent resignation as proof that the current system works.

A Senate amendment – endorsed by Haley and her Democratic challenger, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen – would overhaul the State Ethics Commission, giving it the power to investigate and prosecute lawmakers facing ethics charges. But the House and Senate ethics committees still would decide guilt or innocence and hand down any punishments.

Overall, the Senate study committee found the state’s ethics laws and need “meaningful and comprehensive” reform to “greatly enhance the trust in South Carolina’s public officials.”

The committee also agreed the state should require lawmakers to disclose everyone who pays them, with some exceptions for court-ordered settlements and interest on certain financial accounts.

Also on Thursday, a Democratic state senator said an ethics reform legislation should address the governor’s trips to political functions.

Sen. Brad Hutto said he will propose an amendment that ensures taxpayers aren’t contributing to a political campaign through state cars or planes. His comments came after the Attorney General’s Office left the matter to the state Ethics Commission.

A government watchdog group has insisted that Haley reimburse taxpayers for a trip to North Carolina in June, even though the commission said it wasn’t necessary. After the commission’s board in October backed up Director Herb Hayden’s interpretation of state law, Hutto asked Attorney General Alan Wilson to weigh in. But Solicitor General Robert Cook wrote that his office can’t issue an opinion on such a particular situation.

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