COLUMBIA — A state panel has recommended extensive changes to South Carolina’s weak ethics laws, but will legislators who would be governed by the new rules act on the proposals?
That question will likely be one of the dominant narratives for the remainder of the legislative session here after an ethics overhaul group appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley unveiled its report Monday.
A leader of the S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform, appointed via a Haley executive order in October, said the panel’s recommendations will place South Carolina at the national forefront of honest, open government if adopted.
“Our people must have confidence and respect for our government,” said Henry McMaster, commission co-chairman and former state attorney general. “Our government at all levels ... must be above suspicion or it will not work.”
In all, reform commissioners — none of whom are sitting public officials — made 23 recommendations.
What happens to the reform suggestions, and others from additional ethics reform panels, will be up to state lawmakers, who have appointed their own ethics reform study groups.
The establishment of the groups followed a series of high-profile ethics controversies during the past year, including Haley being cleared of allegations she used her former state House office for personal gain, and the indictment and resignation of former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard.
The following is a look at highlights of the reform commission’s proposals:
All public officials would have to report who their private employers are. Officials would also have to disclose immediate family members’ income from any government entity, a business that employs a lobbyist or a firm with government contracts. In only some cases would officials have to disclose the income amounts from private businesses. “People are entitled to some amount of privacy,” McMaster said.
All ethics complaints would be handled by a beefed-up State Ethics Commission (the Haley-appointed panel recommends legislators provide additional funding to the commission). Currently, the House and Senate ethics committees receive complaints filed against current and former members. Unlike a House GOP panel examining state ethics laws, the Haley-created commission would not abolish legislative ethics committees. They would retain the power to discipline members for disorderly conduct and expel them. Also under reform commissioners’ plan, the State Ethics Commission would refer cases involving suspected criminality to a new multi-agency Public Integrity Unit led by the State Attorney General’s Office.
Commissioners say the period to respond to an open records request should be cut from 15 days to seven days. And public bodies would have 30 days to fulfill a request. Currently, there is no specific time requirement for fulfilling a request. The exemption that allows state lawmakers to shield their correspondence from the FOIA would be abolished under the reform commission’s plan. Disputes related to open records requests would be handled by administrative law courts, without the need for attorneys, unless the parties want them. The reform commission also wants to lower the cost of FOIA requests.
Since a 2010 federal court ruling, anonymous groups in South Carolina have been able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from undisclosed sources to attempt to swing elections. The ruling meant that the state law that has previously required political action committees and other groups to follow limits on campaign donations was no longer in effect. The judge ruled the state’s previous definition of a committee was too broad. The reform commission has offered a suggested revision to state law that more narrowly defines the groups.
The Senate last year implemented a rule outlawing the operation of such groups associated with its members. But PACs associated with House members still exist, most notably the Palmetto Leadership Council affiliated with House Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston. Although the PLC is commonly referred to as a leadership PAC, it is technically classified by the State Ethics Commission as a non-candidate committee. “Those leadership PACs are viewed, we think, by the public as a way to skirt the campaign finance limits on contributions to candidates,” McMaster said. “We must not only be clean and honest, we must look clean and honest.”
Strengthen penalties for criminal violations of ethics laws and ban the use of campaign funds for payment of a prosecution related to ethics violations.
Revise the definition of lobbyist to include not only individuals who lobby the General Assembly, but also those who lobby other branches of state government and local public bodies.