The South Carolina Senate began debate Tuesday on a House-approved ethics bill that would lead to significant changes in how members of the General Assembly are investigated for alleged violations.
“The bill explicitly requires that all investigations of public officials, including legislators, would be conducted by the reconstituted ethics commission,” State Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said on the Senate floor Tuesday. Currently, such investigations are done by the respective House and Senate ethics committees.
The measure would create an independent panel to lead investigations of possible wrongdoing by lawmakers. Once the commission completes its investigation, the legislative committees would decide what action to take. A complaint would remain secret until the commission issues a finding of probable cause finding is reached or the complaint is dismissed.
“It would be an independent, bipartisan, that’s the other feature of this. Just as we tried to with our own ethics committees, I think the Senate, we set that standard,” Martin said.
For four years, a group of Republicans led by Gov. Nikki Haley have attempted to pass an ethics reform bill. Each time, they have been blocked by a coalition of Democrats and Republican allies who say the current system is not broken (pointing to the prosecution of former State Sen. Robert Ford in 2013) and that only minor tweaks are necessary.
A major issue that does divide Republicans is whether third-party groups that engage in “electioneering” activities, such as running ads or distributing mail fliers, should be required to list their donors. Senators last year voted to include language in a separate bill that would have required these groups to list their leaders. However, enough conservatives voted against the idea as to jettison the entire bill’s chances last year. Those senators maintained the US Constitution protects anonymous free speech and naming members of political groups risks opening them up to retaliation.
Under the bill legislators would also have to reveal their public and private sources of income, but not how much they earned. Right now lawmakers only disclose public income and any money received from lobbyists.