On Thursday, South Carolina House Republicans began the task of studying how strengthen and possibly rewrite ethics laws for their chamber. The state’s ethics laws have been increasingly criticized by outside groups— and even some legislators themselves— after recent cases involving Gov. Nikki Haley and House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
It’s not clear in either case that any laws were broken, but Common Cause lobbyist John Crangle says reform did not go far enough after a Statehouse corruption sting 20 years ago.
“Right now we are listening to people’s comments and suggestions and then we are going to assimilate those and start working from that point forward,” said Rep. Murrell Smith (R-Sumter), who is chair of the study committee.
The panel heard from watchdog groups pushing for reform, like Ashley Landess, president of the South Carolina Policy Council. She gave lawmakers a long “fix-it” list to consider, including what she calls the structural problem of them trying to police their own members.
“Get rid of your House and Senate ethics committees. One agency can investigate ethics disclosure issues. Anything beyond that ought to be — and is, by the way–legally the realm of the attorney general and of (the State Law Enforcement Division) and not of the House of Representatives,” Landess told legislators. “When you have the ability to hide from the law, then you have the ability to make all kinds of laws and turn whatever you want to do into legal corruption and that’s what we have here.”
Yet, University of South Carolina Law School Dean Rob Wilcox told the panel that the state Constitution prescribes that each chamber has power to police and punish its members. He suggested that the ultimate power should remain with each body.
The panel also heard from state officials who have been appointed to enforce ethics laws. Deputy Attorney General Barry Bernstein is with the newly-formed Public Integrity Unit to “take ethics enforcement from concept to reality.”
“We have the ability now to do this and we are working together with the five partners: the Attorney General, SLED, the Inspector General, Department of Revenue and the State Ethics Commission, we’re already working together. What we do need from the Legislature is the ability to make it easier to work because of a couple of laws that really give us a little bit of an impediment,” says Bernstein.
But the panel is sorting through what it will address and how.
“It’s a huge process and it depends on where the details are,” Chairman Smith said. “I think the details need to remain in dealing with the ethics committee, disclosure requirements and try to keep yourself confined within those guidelines.”
“Everybody’s got strong opinions on ethics reform… and our job is to make sure the public has confidence in our legislative system,” he says.
The panel also heard from the League of Women Voters and former Attorney General Henry McMaster. McMaster is co-chairing Gov. Haley’s task force on ethics.