The South Carolina House has forwarded on an ethics reform bill back to the Senate, meaning it could be one vote away from heading to the governor’s desk if senators do not amend it again.
Gov. Nikki Haley and House Republicans have made it a priority this year to create independent investigations of lawmakers. Currently, ethics investigations of legislators are done by either the House or Senate ethics committees. If the measure approved Thursday would become law, investigations would switch over to a revamped state Ethics Commission. The commission’s staff would investigate any complaints filed against elected officials or judges.
After the confidential investigation, an eight-member board with members appointed by the governor, House and Senate would determine if probable cause of a violation existed. The investigation would become public at that point, with criminal cases referred to the appropriate law enforcement agency and civil violations by legislators referred back to the House or Senate ethics committees for punishment.
State Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, said an independent investigation eliminates the appearance of backroom deals. “I think the beauty is, with this bill… the public won’t have to perceive. They’ll get to see what happens,” he said on the House floor. “And I think that is a tremendous step forward.”
It appears some disagreement exists between the House and Senate on how the commission’s members should be chosen. Under the House proposal, the governor would choose four members, while the House would elect two and Senate two more.
The bill would create an eight-member commission, half-appointed by the governor and the other half by the House and Senate. Only half of the governor’s picks could come from the same political party and none could have donated to the governor’s campaign. The legislative picks would be split evenly among the two parties, although the same restrictions on contributions would not apply. The House version is slightly different than what passed the Senate unanimously last month, mostly in terms of when the complaint against an elected official would go public.
The measure passed 101-2, with one opponent saying it does not go far enough since the House and Senate would still determine the punishment after a violation was found. “Nothing could still happen if the House or Senate ethics committees choose not to act,” State Rep. Jonathan Hill, R-Townville, said. “Or if they do choose to act, they could choose to be very, very lenient.”
Pope argued current law gives the committees the discretion to do that anyway without the public knowing.