After four years of debate about how to strengthen the state’s ethics laws, S.C. lawmakers may pass two changes to the rules governing public officials’ behavior later this month.
Dozens of ethics bills have been introduced since late 2012, when Gov. Nikki Haley formed a blue-ribbon committee to evaluate state laws governing how public officials should behave.
But out of the nearly two dozen recommendations made by that panel, only two have a chance of becoming law four years later, when the Legislature wraps up its work during its mid-June veto session.
Critics say the state Senate is to blame for the lack of progress. The House has passed more than a dozen ethics-related bills, sending them to the Senate, where most have died.
Even if lawmakers give final approval later this month to the two bills near the finish line, good-government groups say the state’s ethics laws still will need more work.
“Dark-money disclosure – that is a really serious problem and it’s getting worse,” said John Crangle with Common Cause of South Carolina, referring to secretive groups that raise war chests to influence elections but do not disclose their agenda or donors.
Legislators also need to clarify the law dictating how campaign money can be used and when public officials should abstain from voting because they have a conflict of interest, said Lynn Teague, with the League of Women Voters.
Lawmakers also should be barred by law from forming political action committees that they can use to raise money and dole out campaign contributions to their colleagues. Those committees – now banned by House and Senate rules but not by law – can wield excessive influence over the legislative process, critics say.
Even if lawmakers pass the two proposals that could become law when they return later this month, the push for tougher ethics rules will be ongoing, Teague added.
“We can’t do what we did after (Operation) Lost Trust and figure that we fixed things,” she said, referring to a landmark federal corruption sting of S.C. lawmakers more than two decades ago that resulted in the last major update to the state’s ethics laws.
Ethics bills hit roadblock
Of the two ethics bills lawmakers still could pass, one proposal would end the practice of state lawmakers exclusively investigating ethics complaints against themselves, shifting investigations to a revamped State Ethics Commission that supporters say will allow independent watchdogs to oversee lawmakers.
Another bill would require lawmakers to disclose some information about their private income.
Differing versions of both bills have passed the House and Senate, and now are being reviewed by a panel of lawmakers tasked with ironing out the two chambers’ differences.
But the chances of the bills passing dimmed last week when an apparent agreement on the independent-investigations bill fell apart.
The first signs of that breakdown, said state House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, R-York, came when senators insisted last week on adopting their version of a key part of the investigations proposal.
That insistence surprised Pope, a former prosecutor who is negotiating for the House with senators on the bill.
Earlier in the week, five of the six negotiators had reached agreement on independent investigations. However, one state senator did not attend that meeting.
When State Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, rejoined negotiations Wednesday, he asked for more time to share details of the agreement with Senate Democrats. A day later, Malloy said the Senate preferred its version of the proposal. Later that day, the Senate voted 37-1 to insist on its version.
After that vote, Pope expressed frustration at the Senate’s position to his House colleagues.
“I don’t know where we can go, folks,” he said. “We have given and given and given.”
But Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who led the Senate’s negotiators, said he still is confident both sides can reach an agreement.
Other state leaders were disappointed with the setback.
House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, blamed senators, citing them as the reason the state needs ethics reforms.
“These common-sense reforms passed the House – overwhelmingly, with bipartisan support – because our chamber understands the importance of this issue,” said Lucas, who formed an ethics task force shortly after succeeding House Speaker Bobby Harrell, the Charleston Republican who resigned and entered a guilty plea to campaign finance violations.
“The fact that a few senators’ objections prevented these bills from advancing through the legislative process further proves that the people of South Carolina need reforms to hold elected officials accountable and restore the public’s trust,” Lucas added.
Gov. Nikki Haley’s office also urged lawmakers to act.
“Passing independent investigations and income disclosure has been a top priority (of the governor’s) for four years and – finally – this year we are closer than ever to getting them over the finish line,” said Chaney Adams, Haley’s press secretary, adding the House and Senate have made more progress this year than ever before.
“(T)here is no reason or excuse why the people of South Carolina shouldn’t be able to celebrate passage of ethics reform this year.”
Haley made ethics reform a priority in 2012 shortly after the then-GOP majority House Ethics Committee investigated and dismissed ethics complaints against her related to when she was a Lexington state representative.
Other high-profile ethics cases have spurred cries for ethics reform, including cases against former Gov. Mark Sanford, Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, state Sen. Robert Ford and Speaker Harrell. Ard, Ford and Harrell resigned in the wake of ethics investigations. An ethics probe that led to charges against Harrell also continues under the State House dome.
The governor’s ethics task force – led by two former S.C. attorneys general – made nearly two dozen recommendations for strengthening the rules that say what public officials can and cannot do.
Those recommendations included requiring public officials to disclose sources of their private income and the amount if that income comes from an organization that lobbies state government or a business that has government contracts.
There still is time for the Senate and House to pass a bill creating independent oversight of lawmakers.
But the two chambers disagree over a key provision of the bill – how long secrecy should shroud an investigation if the State Ethics Commission, which would conduct the independent investigation, decides a lawmaker has violated the state Ethics Act.
Ethics reforms going nowhere
Four years after state leaders pledged to update the state’s ethics laws, no major reforms have become law. A look at key changes, recommended by a blue-ribbob commission, that have not moved:
▪ Strengthen penalties for violations of the state ethics laws
▪ Ban the use of campaign money to pay criminal penalties for violations of the state ethics law
▪ Adopt greater protections and rewards for whistle-blowers who report government waste, fraud or other abuses
▪ Shorten the time limit that public bodies have to respond to and fulfill requests for public information, limit the fees that can be charged for searching and copying that information, and provide for enforcement in instances where public bodies drag their feet
▪ Eliminate the exemption of legislative papers from public disclosure under the state's Freedom of Information Act
▪ Expand required disclosures of conflicts of interests for public officials, including requiring attorney-legislators to disclose fees when they represent clients in cases where a state agency is an opposing party, and requiring public officials to disclose all fiduciary positions they hold, whether compensated or not
▪ Extend to two years from one the period a legislator must wait to represent a client for a fee before a state entity after voting to pick a member of that organization
▪ Expand the definition of lobbyist to require registration and disclosure from people and entities that lobby local governments and other subdivisions of state government
Banning leadership PACs, but not Great Day?
Ethics reform advocates and Gov. Nikki Haley’s ethics task force recommended banning, in state law, lawmakers from setting up political action committees, groups whose spending the lawmakers can direct.
Critics say the organizations allow powerful public officials – and interests that lobby state government – to exceed campaign contribution limits, exerting excessive power over elections and the legislative process.
The House and Senate already have banned the so-called leadership PACs by rule, but not law.
But some ethics advocates say Gov. Nikki Haley now has a leadership PAC in the form of A Great Day SC, the political group formed to target state Senate incumbents who Haley opposes.
Haley political adviser Tim Pearson runs the political group, which is trying to oust longtime GOP state senators in the upcoming June 14 Republican primaries.
Great Day is an “abuse of power,” said John Crangle of Common Cause of South Carolina, a good-government, watchdog group.
But Great Day differs from a leadership PAC in two important ways, according to the group:
▪ First, Great Day was set up under federal law as an IRS-designated 527 group, which requires it to disclose its donors and its spending publicly. Current S.C. law requires no disclosure of political groups’ activities, making it easy for political groups to form and conceal their activities.
▪ Also, unlike leadership PACs, Great Day was not set up to give campaign contributions to candidates and cannot do so. Instead, the group is raising money and spending money on ads in some Senate races where Haley has decided to target incumbents and support their opponents.
“As governor, (Haley) believes it is not only appropriate but her responsibility to make the voters aware of exactly how well – or how poorly – they are being served by their elected officials,” Pearson said. “She will continue to use every tool at her disposal to make sure the voters know the truth before they cast their votes on June 14."