February 7, 2016

House votes to make ethics investigations public

The South Carolina House has voted to change its rules so its internal ethics investigations could be open to the public.

Rules Committee Chairman Alan Clemmons (R-Myrtle Beach) said, despite the rule's timing, lawmakers were not targeting the governor (File)

Under new rules adopted by the chamber Tuesday, the House Ethics Committee would be required to hold a public hearing if “probable cause” of wrongdoing is found against a current or former House member. The change comes amid rumors of a House Ethics Committee investigation into Governor Nikki Haley– a former legislator.

The Ethics Committee met behind closed doors Tuesday morning. By rule, they could not say what was discussed. Hours later, the House Rules Committee called an unscheduled meeting to pass the changes— which were first proposed over a year ago. The resolution passed the full House 98-0 only minutes later.

Rules Committee Chairman Alan Clemmons (R-Myrtle Beach) says the change had nothing to do with the governor. “This isn’t about any one person,” he told reporters shortly after the vote, “This is about bringing sunshine into the system.”

Prior to the change, any hearing into alleged wrongdoing by a legislator was done in executive session behind closed doors. The public would only learn an investigation had even occurred if the House decided to reprimand the accused lawmaker.

It’s still not known if a House investigation is actively underway against the governor. A prominent GOP fundraiser, John Rainey, has questioned whether then-Rep. Haley improperly sought donations from lobbyists while working as a fundraiser for Lexington Medical Center. A state judge tossed out his lawsuit in March, ruling that only the House Ethics Committee has authority over former members in such cases.

Haley has previously said she will not waive her right to confidentiality. Clemmons said the rules change would make that point moot if probable cause were found. However, he insisted the change was not targeting the governor. “It’s something we’ve been wanting to get to for a long time… I don’t know that there’s any magic to the timing.”

Rep. Jim Harrison (R-Columbia), who originally proposed the new rules back in January 2011, said he wanted the House’s ethics rules to match the Senate’s. Harrison does not serve on either the Ethics Committee or the Rules Committee.

The six members of the Ethics Committee (five Republicans, one Democrat) remained tight-lipped about Tuesday’s meeting. When asked whether the panel had taken any action, Rep. Mike Pitts (R-Laurens) responded, “I couldn’t tell you.” 

The resolution takes effect immediately.

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