A South Carolina House of Representatives panel on Tuesday gave its endorsement to legislation that would give up lawmakers’ ability to police themselves on legal issues. But it’s not clear if the proposal would have enough votes to reach Gov. Nikki Haley, since a virtually similar bill failed in the Senate earlier this year.
A draft proposal unanimously approved by a House study panel Tuesday would create a new independent commission that could investigate allegations against all politicians in South Carolina. Currently, the House and Senate have their own ethics committees that handle all complaints against their members and decide whether to turn over a case for criminal investigation, handle it internally, or dismiss it.
The 12-member commission would be made up of four members appointed by the governor, four more elected by the Supreme Court, and four others chosen by the General Assembly (split evenly between the House and the Senate). The commission would consider complaints and hold confidential hearings, only making them public if probable cause of a violati0n is found. Should that happen, possible technical violations would be turned over to the respective House and Senate ethics committees and suspected criminal wrongdoing would be handed to law enforcement.
The panel’s chairman Speaker pro tempore Tommy Pope, R-York, pitched the commission as a way to ease public concerns that legislators are protecting their own. Pope added that the House Ethics Committee and its Senate counterpart are ill-suited to handle criminal investigations.
But while support for the idea exists in the House, senators killed a similar proposal last year. While senators cited several different reasons at the time, the prevailing attitude among opponents was that the measure is unconstitutional. State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, has argued that the state constitution explicitly requires the House and Senate to discipline their own members.
There is renewed emphasis on ethics reform this year, particularly from the House and Governor’s Office. Incoming House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, has made tightening ethics laws a priority in what he calls a step towards restoring public trust in the chamber after former Speaker Bobby Harrell’s conviction on six ethics-related charges in October. In that case, watchdog groups had gone outside the House Ethics Committee and directly to law enforcement, believing Harrell held too much sway over the committee.
But some senators say they see no problem with the current system, noting that it worked in 2013 when the Senate Ethics Committee decided to turn over former Sen. Robert Ford’s case to law enforcement after an investigation. Ford was indicted last month on eight counts stemming from misuse of campaign funds. He has pleaded “not guilty” and is awaiting trial.
“The Senate has done its business fairly and appropriately,” Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry said on the Senate floor during the debate earlier this year.
Ford’s attorney insists state officials are scapegoating his client to justify new laws. “In the current climate up here, they’re looking to make an example of everybody when it comes to ethics,” attorney Bill Runyon told reporters last week. “The legislature is bound and determined that they’re going to have some ethics legislation.”
A significant difference this year is that House leaders have decided against an overall ethics reform measure, instead pushing about a dozen separate bills that they hope have an easier time of passing the Senate. “You’ll have 10, 12, 15 single bills rather than (one) this thick,” Pope told reporters, gesturing as if he held a stack of documents. “I’m confident we can work this bill through the House.”