COLUMBIA — A major new ethics reform bill would remove criminal penalties for the offense, a key element in recent controversies involving state officials and lawmakers.
The proposal has several state lawmakers vowing that the House bill, which quickly cleared two legislative panels last week, will not pass unless criminal penalties present under current law are restored.
“The notion of taking campaign dollars for personal use — you’ve got to be kidding me, that’s absolutely criminal,” said Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia.
Smith and Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, said they will introduce amendments when the legislation reaches the House floor this week to add back all current criminal penalties.
Some legislators said they thought the new bill would only remove criminal violations for ministerial violations, such as late filing of a campaign finance report.
The decriminalization aspect of the proposal, which contains many other changes to state ethics law, also has riled groups ranging from the limited-government S.C. Policy Council to the League of Women Voters of South Carolina and S.C. Common Cause.
Lynn Teague, state advocacy director for the League of Women Voters, said parts of the bill are appealing, such as additional income disclosure for legislators.
But removing criminal penalties for offenses such as personal use of campaign funds is an “intentional effort to not have strong ethics enforcement,” she said.
The introduction of the bill comes at the same time two Charleston lawmakers, GOP House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Democratic Sen. Robert Ford, are facing accusations that they dipped into their campaign coffers for personal expenses, among other alleged ethics violations
Harrell is a co-sponsor of the new bill. He said in a statement that as speaker, he co-sponsors all legislation that is part of the House Republican Caucus’ agenda, such as ethics reform.
And Harrell said the bill would not serve to help him as he faces an inquiry by the State Law Enforcement Division.
“Of course, as in all legislation, it would not take effect until after the governor signs it into law,” he said. “The requirements of the current ethics law would stand until the new law takes effect. There would be no attempt to make any of the provisions of the new law retroactive, and I would oppose any effort to do so.”
The bill states that in cases where current law is repealed or amended, pending actions would not be affected. Harrell has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime. Ford has declined comment, but his attorney has said initial charges by the Senate Ethics Committee are the result of Ford’s sloppy campaign finance reporting.
So how did the ethics bill pass out of a subcommittee and the House Judiciary Committee last week if legislators are unhappy with it?
It all comes back to timing.
Despite the introduction of many other ethics reform bills during the ongoing legislative session, the new proposal appears to be the sole bill containing wide-ranging reforms that has a chance of passing both chambers this year. That’s because of the May 1 crossover deadline, when a House bill must reach the Senate and vice versa. Absent approval by one chamber before the deadline, two-thirds of state representatives or senators would have to vote to take up a bill, a high hurdle.
The new ethics bill, dense and multifaceted, has been on such a fast track that it wasn’t posted online for the public to view until late last week, after it had already passed the two panels. The bill was developed in secret, folding in elements of other ethics reform bills and recommendations offered by study panel created by Gov. Nikki Haley.
“We think that’s extremely unfortunate,” Teague said of the late posting of the bill. “We should never see that again. It showed a total disregard for public input. And for that matter, we are hearing legislators say they were not told what was in it, really. That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work.”
Quinn said he felt uncomfortable with the way the bill advanced, but said that he and others felt pressure to move the proposal along.
“The possibility of losing the bill altogether — a lot of us just voted out to make the crossover deadline,” he said.