Gov. Nikki Haley signed two new ethics reform bills into law Thursday during a stop in Easley.
The two new acts require lawmakers to disclose all their sources of income, instead of just public sources or from lobbyists principal as they previously did, and require the independent Ethics Commission to investigate any ethical accusations against legislators.
Haley has made the new laws a priority since her own ethics case in 2012, when she was cleared of wrongdoing by a House panel over allegations she did not properly report income from two entities with business before the state. The governor vowed to push for clearer ethics laws in the ensuing months, but her allies in the legislature were blocked for the next three years by senators arguing the state constitution only allows the House and Senate to enforce their own rules.
“This has been four years in the making,” Haley said. “This has been the old guard fighting this every step of the way. The fact that the new guard wins again is another sign that South Carolinians win again.”
Haley said it’s critical that an outside agency handle the investigation of legislators, so there’s no perception that lawmakers are protecting each other. “It’s not only good for the public to know… it’s good for the elected officials to know that it’s going to be independent,” she said. “That it’s not going to be political. That it’s going to be handled properly.”
The location of Thursday’s bill signings was not a coincidence. In fact, it was near the home district of State Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, a longtime senator and Haley ally who was key to getting both bills through the Senate. Martin is facing a primary runoff election against former State Rep. Rex Rice next week. The governor gave her support to Martin in the race.
“I’ve been involved in the ethics issue for a number of years now,” Martin told South Carolina Radio Network.
The legislation also revamps the state Ethics Commission and divides its members between those appointed by the governor and legislature (all are currently chosen by the governor). The commission would investigate all ethics complaints filed against elected officials in South Carolina and determine whether probable cause exists of wrongdoing. However, the House and Senate ethics committees would still get the final say over members of their respective chambers.
In the past House and Senate ethics committees oversaw the campaign filings and handle complaints against their own. Opponents, including the governor, equated the arrangement to “the fox guarding the henhouse” since the State Ethics Commission oversees all other public officials.
Democrats have criticized Haley’s support for the changes given her own ethical run-ins, but most ended up supporting the bills.