South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley wants legislators to abolish the state House and Senate ethics committees, saying lawmakers should not be policing themselves. It’s part of a five-point ethics reform package that Haley proposed in a whirlwind statewide tour with Attorney General Alan Wilson on Wednesday.
“I think it’s very clear that we don’t need the House watching the House’s ethics (and) we don’t need the Senate watching the Senate’s ethics,” Haley told reporters at several stops in Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Greenville, and Columbia. “It will definitely stop the fox guarding the henhouse.”Instead, the governor wants the independent State Ethics Commission handling all complaints. Currently, the agency only looks into cases involving state executives, lobbyists, and local officials– not legislators.
The idea is not a new one and some in the House questioned the governor’s timing. Haley was investigated by the House Ethics Committee last spring for pay she received from a Lexington County hospital and an engineering firm. The committee voted to dismiss the charges in June, but its chairman Rep. J.R. Smith (R-Aiken) said at the time that his staff would work to clarify weaknesses in the law.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston) testily responded to Haley’s proposal in a statement Wednesday. “The biggest driving force behind the need for ethics reform in our state was brought about by Governor Haley’s own questionable actions. First and foremost, the unanswered ethical and legal issues raised by the Governor’s past actions should serve as the starting template of any ethics reform effort.”
Harrell said the Governor’s Office never approached legislators already working on their own ethics reform proposal.
House Democrats made a point of noting they have previously sponsored a bill to abolish the legislative ethics committees. “Today’s events were a publicity stunt by a Governor who has manipulated the existing ethics laws since the day she stepped foot in the State House eight years ago,” House Minority Leader Harry Ott (D-St. Matthews) said in a statement released by his caucus.
In her proposal, Haley said she also wants lawmakers who are attorneys to recuse themselves from voting for boards they also appear before on behalf of their clients. Most notably, the governor pointed to a few senators that frequently argue cases before the Workers Compensation Commission– whose membership the General Assembly must approve.
Haley also pushed to require that elected officials disclose all of their income. Currently public officials only have to disclose any money earned from public entities or businesses that have lobbyists. Income disclosure was one of the ethics allegations filed against Haley. The issue in that situation was whether or not then-Rep. Haley was required to disclose her financial ties with engineering firm Wilbur Smith, which had dealings with the state at the time (she did not).
Haley also called on legislators to end their exemption to open records laws. Lawmakers are not currently covered by the Freedom of Information Act, which requires other state agencies (including the Governor’s Office) to release all their public documents and correspondence.
Attorney General Wilson, meanwhile, announced that his office is working with other agencies on to change how ethics violations are investigated on a practical level. Wilson, a Republican, said his eyes were opened by the recent investigation by his office into former Lt. Governor Ken Ard. That case took more than a year before Ard was finally indicted in March.
Wilson said the state Ethics Commission will usually investigate a case and then turn it over to his office and/or SLED if they find possible criminal charges. The Attorney General will then work with the state Department of Revenue or the Inspector General’s Office in its own investigation. Wilson says he worries his office duplicates what the commission has already done. Instead, he proposes a new Public Integrity Unit that would act as a partnership between all of those agencies.
“It makes sense to consolidate the resources that are already in existence so that when we investigate public officials, we can do it in a way that doesn’t turn into a witch-hunt and becomes a public disaster,” Wilson said Wednesday, “But instead in a way that is thorough and brings integrity to the whole process.”
Wilson said he is working to see if a partnership requires approval by lawmakers. “I’m looking for a way to get this started without a law.”
Government watchdogs said they have doubts about the governor’s proposal. John Crangle of the group Common Cause said Haley is only addressing “20-30% of the problem.”
“If you don’t talk about campaign finance reform, you’re not taking on the true source of corruption there,” he told South Carolina Radio Network.