South Carolina lawmakers say ethics reform will be a top priority when they return to session early next year. Both the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House have announced they plan to have separate study groups meet this fall to recommend toughening the state’s ethics laws.
State Rep. Murrell Smith (R-Sumter) will lead the GOP side of things. He said he’s optimistic the House will make changes this year. “If you’ve got the House Democratic Caucus and the Republican Caucus working on an issue for next year, that means there’s consensus in this,” he told South Carolina Radio Network, “I think the odds are that we will pass something in the House quickly.”
House Minority Leader Harry Ott agreed, “Aside from jobs and economic development, ethics reform is the most important issue we face in the upcoming session. It cuts to the heart of confidence in our government,” he said in a statement. “We have been talking about ethics reform for years, and it’s about time we actually did something. Democrats are committed to doing our part to build a better, more accountable ethics framework in the state.”
Ott could not be reached Thursday.
Ethical issues have dominated the state’s political headlines this summer. Governor Nikki Haley was cleared by a House panel in June over accusations that she improperly worked as a fundraiser for a Lexington hospital while still serving in the House. A complaint questioned whether Haley was improperly soliciting donations to the hospital’s foundation from lobbyists, but the House Ethics Committee eventually concluded her actions were not technically illegal under state law.
Later that month, the state was given a failing grade and ranked 45th in the nation in a “corruption risk” report card released by the Center for Public Integrity and other groups. In August, Gov. Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson unveiled a “five-point” ethics reform plan. Shortly after that, the conservative think-tank South Carolina Policy Council released its own recommendations, saying the governor’s plan did not go far enough.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell faced ethics questions himself last week, after the Charleston Post & Courier reported that Harrell had reimbursed himself more than $280,000 in campaign funds since 2008 with little explanation.
Smith said the committee would look to close “loopholes” in the ethics law, specifically noting the gray area involving Haley’s own ethics case. He said lawmakers would “absolutely” discuss the possibility of putting legislators under the purview of an independent statewide ethics body. Right now, the House and Senate each have their own respective committees that are tasked with policing legislators. However, those committees usually keep their proceedings closed to the public. Smith serves on the House Ethics Committee.
Legislative leaders would not say when the two respective committees would meet. Smith said he expected the GOP caucus to be open to the public.