Gov. Nikki Haley filed an executive order Thursday creating a special temporary panel that will recommend changes to South Carolina’s ethics laws. Haley announced the creation of the 11-member Commission on Ethics Reform in a press conference at the Statehouse. Most of the members have law enforcement, ethics, or journalistic backgrounds.
The governor said an independent body is the best way to get true ethics reform. “This takes a completely independent, bipartisan group that has a wealth of wisdom an experience beyond any of us that are elected and says ‘this is the way it should be done.’ I hope that this is the blueprint for what we all look at.”
The panel will be co-chaired by two former South Carolina attorneys general, Republican Henry McMaster and Democrat Travis Medlock. “The point is to make the rules very clear so everyone can understand them,” McMaster told reporters on Thursday, “There are grey areas and we hope to be able to eliminate those grey areas and make everything very clean and precise and understandable.”
Medlock was Attorney General during Operation Lost Trust, a 1990 FBI sting that eventually led to charges against 17 state lawmakers. That led to the creation of what eventually became the state’s current ethics laws.
Medlock says that he believes a big problem is that state lawmakers still are not required to disclose all of their income– only that which comes from state entities. “I’ve always seen disclosure with enforcement as being the essence of any good, workable ethics law,” he said at Thursday’s press conference.
Haley said the commission must make its report by January 28. The legislature has created its own study committees in the Senate and among the GOP and Democratic caucuses of the House.
At least one watchdog activist called the new commission a step in the right direction, but questioned whether it would go beyond simply requiring more disclosure and instead recommend true reforms— and whether the legislature would even approve the changes if it did.
“I’ve often said disclosure is like an X-ray that helps detect cancer, but it doesn’t cure the cancer,” said John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause, “You need some substantive prohibitions on the use of campaign money… If they’re not willing to make those kinds of reforms, then they’re not going to accomplish very much. They’ve got to stop some of the stuff that’s going on.”
Crangle pointed out that he himself had once been appointed to a campaign finance reform commission by former Gov. Jim Hodges. That commission’s recommendations were ignored, he said.
Other than McMaster and Medlock, Haley also appointed South Carolina Press Association executive director Bill Rogers, former U.S. Attorney for South Carolina John Simmons, former SC Ethics Commission chair Susi McWilliams, former State Rep. Ben Hagood, Dean of the University of South Carolina College of Mass Communications Charles Bierbauer, and Columbia attorney F. Xavier Starkes.
Current Attorney General Alan Wilson also appointed one member— former Third Circuit Solicitor C. Kelly Jackson. House Ethics Committee Chairman Roland Smith (R-Aiken) also appointed a commissioner (Bridgestone Americas’ communications manager Monica Key).
Senate Ethics Chairman Wes Hayes (R-Rock Hill) had not named his appointee as of Thursday morning.