S.C. Senate punts on ethics reform bill

Some or all of the state senators who helped defeat an ethics reform bill last week must have something to hide. What else could explain the abrupt end to a nearly three-year effort to enact meaningful changes in the way ethics charges against lawmakers are handled?

It had appeared that this year the stars might finally be aligning for genuine ethics reform. The House, which passed a reform bill two years ago, has passed more reform proposals this year, including an essential measure creating an independent investigative commission to oversee ethics complaints.

Gov. Nikki Haley, who began pressuring lawmakers in 2012 to adopt ethics reforms, has consistently lobbied for changes, including a measure to end the practics of lawmakers investigating themselves.

Her use of the bully pulpit to push for reforms was a significant benefit to the cause. But, in the end, it was not enough.

The Senate has squelched meaningful reforms for the past two years. Even a watered-down bill died in the Senate last session.

And last week, senators rejected meaningful reforms once again. As before, the apparent stumbling block was a proposal to create an independent investigative panel.

Ethics complaints now are investigated by ethics committees in the House and Senate, meaning that House and Seante members essentially are investigating their own peers. Under the bill sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, a restructured State Ethics Commission similar to the one approved in the House, which would have been charged with investigating legislators.

But many senators balked at the change, claiming that problems with lawmakers overseeing their own have been in the House, not the Senate. A majority of senators voted to replace Martin’s proposed independent panel with one that featured lawmakers and members of the public.

Martin couldn’t stomach the changes and voted against his own bill, saying it no longer included independent oversight. He said the final bill “was so unacceptable I couldn’t even vote to send the blooming thing to the House, knowing that I would have a chance to amend it later.”

While Martin says the effort to toughen ethics laws that haven’t changed in 20 years is not dead, it is “on life support.”

The brazenness of senators who openly hijacked proposals to allow an independent commission to review ethics complaints is stunning. It sends the message that many senators consider themselves a privileged class whose actions relating to their public service should not be subjected to scrutiny by disinterested investigators.

Claims that the problems lie in the House, not the Senate, are preposterous. Nothing about senators makes them immune from ethical lapses. They have the same capacity for breaking the law as House members.

What is needed in both houses is transparency and accountability. The public deserves to know where elected officials get their money and where potential conflicts of interest exist.

And when lawmakers are accused of ethical violations, the public needs the assurance that those accusations will be investigated thoroughly without bias or favoritism.

The problems with the current system are not merely hypothetical. Last fall, in the most prominent case of ethical malfeasance, House Speaker Bobby Harrell, one of the most powerful politicians in the state, resigned from office after pleading guilty to public corruption charges.

But Harrell had used all his influence to dismantle the investigation that led to his indictment. If not for the intervention and tenacity of S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, he might never have been indicted.

We hope this is not the end of the struggle to enact meaningful ethics reforms. This effort is too important to allow a few senators to derail it.

And while some senators smugly contend that they are capable of policing themselves, we are left to wonder how many offenders managed to evade punishment.