An ethics reform compromise is headed back to the South Carolina House floor, but its future appears uncertain as lawmakers argue over who should have the power to investigate them.
The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday advanced a bill that would create a new 12-member commission made up equally of four members each from the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, to investigate ethics complaints. This commission would look into any complaints against a politician, candidate or state official and determine if enough evidence exists to warrant an investigation.
The bipartisan compromise is the latest effort to get the ethics reform idea cleared into law. It has passed the House and Senate in separate versions but both chambers have been far apart on the issue of who should investigate legislators.
Gov. Nikki Haley opposes this new version, because it would include legislators on the commission and keep the respective House and Senate Ethics committees as the final say on punishment. Haley’s spokesman Doug Mayer told The State newspaper that the compromise “does nothing to fix the actual problem – legislators investigating legislators. The governor hopes the full House will listen to the citizens of our state and do what is right: create a truly independent agency that exists to serve the public interest, not the interests of legislators.”
But House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, said senators already rejected the governor’s call for an entirely independent commission. “If she’s interested in giving the Senate something they haven’t seen before, then this bill may have a chance,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “If she’s interested in just sending the Senate what’s she already sent them, then there will be no bill.”
But it’s not clear that senators support the idea. State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, said he does not think enough support exists in the chamber for the House proposal. “You do have legislators sitting on that commission that would be involved in the investigation (of other legislators). So you don’t have an independent investigation, and that’s a problem.”
Delleney argued that legislators need to be on the commission, as they would be the only members directly accountable to the public through their reelection. He also defended expanding the commission to include potential ethics conflicts by judges, which the governor’s spokesman called a “poison pill” designed to kill the bill. Any alleged improprieties by state judges are currently handled through the state Judicial Department and South Carolina Supreme Court, but would fall under the commission under the House deal.
“Everybody ought to be fed out of the same spoon,” Delleney argued. “Ethics are for judges. Ethics are for lawmakers. And ethics are for the executive branch.” But Campsen said he believes having lawmakers determine the potential legal fate of judges they also appoint is a violation of the separation of powers.
Delleney estimated the bill will be taken up on the House floor in the next week or two. If it passes as written now, Campsen predicted it would fail in the Senate. He predicted the two sides would likely agree on a scaled-back version of ethics reform that would not address oversight, focusing instead on campaign finance and other lower-profile reforms included in the package.