COLUMBIA — Republican South Carolina House members studying ways to reform state ethics laws heard from several witnesses Thursday who pressed lawmakers to achieve a common goal: fix the system.
It was the first meeting for a panel of House GOP lawmakers charged with coming up with proposed legislation for the new session, which begins in January. House Democrats have their own panel, and while the groups are meeting separately, leaders from both parties say they will collaborate.
Questions raised this year over lawmakers’ actions, along with how alleged violations are reviewed, have made ethics reform a top priority for 2013. In March, Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned as he pleaded guilty to ethics violations. When the House Ethics Committee cleared Gov. Nikki Haley in June of allegations she lobbied for two employers while a member of the House, members cited vagueness in the law and vowed to craft legislation to close loopholes.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell has also come under fire recently over $280,000 he reimbursed himself from his campaign over the past four years, largely for flights he piloted on his own plane to legislative and political functions. The questions stemmed from vague explanations on his ethics filings. But Harrell has said he complied with state law, which requires reports give a “brief description” of campaign expenses. The law gives no guidance on personal plane reimbursements.
Haley, who has created her own panel to study ethics reform, has touted a reform package that would abolish the legislative ethics panels, instead advocating that the State Ethics Commission should handle all ethics complaints against public officials – a change that would require a constitutional amendment.
Ashley Landess of the South Carolina Policy Council said reform was needed in all three branches of state government. Saying there is not enough independence in South Carolina’s judiciary – which is elected by state legislators – Landess also criticized the system of having each chamber operate its own ethics committee, echoing some of the arguments Haley has made.
Landess also said more influence needed to be concentrated with South Carolina’s governor, who she said is more of a cheerleader and business recruiter than chief executive.
“The Legislature has made sure that no one can do that job,” Landess said. “It’s time for real separation of powers in South Carolina.”
John Crangle of citizen watchdog group Common Cause also called for reform at all levels but said his issues lay primarily with finances, saying that only candidates and parties should be able to raise money, not caucuses or political action committees, and that candidates should be limited on how much money they can receive from such entities.
“The major ethics problems in South Carolina relate to money,” Crangle said.
Also Thursday, a representative from state Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office said he was part of a special task force being created to investigate public integrity. Deputy Attorney General Barry Bernstein said the group, which includes representatives from the State Law Enforcement Division, the Department of Revenue and the Inspector General’s Office, needs some minor legislative changes to carry out its work.
“The ability is there to do it today. ... To be effective, we need one or two changes,” Bernstein said, mentioning a needed exception for Revenue to share its information with law enforcement agencies.
The panel is next slated to meet Nov. 28.