SC ethics reforms stalled after 4 years of debate

Ethics in SC


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.

Placing blame

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.”

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See also: Ethics Reform Bills Aim for Status Quo From The SC Policy Council.

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