A committee of state senators thinks that South Carolina’s ethics laws are just as fine now as they were in 1991 when they were passed.
How do they know? Two reasons:
1) Nobody has stopped them at the grocery store to urge them to reform the laws.
2) Those unfortunate charges against former Sen. Robert Ford — the Senate Ethics Committee investigation did the trick. Of course, that’s not to say the senators who comprise that committee sanctioned their colleague, Mr. Ford. He resigned before that could happen. Attorney General Alan Wilson has opened a criminal investigation in the case.
Are the state’s citizens to believe that these senators are besieged by grocery shoppers lobbying for a particular physician to be named “doctor of the day,” and demanding March be declared Bladder Cancer Awareness Month? Both were approved by the Senate last session.
Are they to understand that the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the Coastal Conservation League and the Conservation Voters of South Carolina are all insignificant voices crying for reform and not to be regarded because they shop at the wrong grocery stores?
And are they to believe that a panel of senators serving as the Senate Ethics Committee, can deliver unbiased rulings on charges against their colleagues and friends? And even if they say they could, are citizens really to believe them?
An impressive committee, put together by Gov. Nikki Haley to recommend ethics reforms, found many reasons to reform the laws, and many ways to improve the laws to protect the state from corruption. It was chaired by two former attorneys general, and it included highly regarded state leaders, none of them office holders. The South Carolina Press Association was represented as well.
Four other committees have studied the ethics law, and while all do not agree with each other, all have found room for improvement.
Under consideration are issues like how much money politicians are allowed to raise for their campaigns and how they may spend it. How should the laws change to prevent legislators from ignoring conflicts of interest?
Of particular interest is the way the legislative bodies handle complaints that members have violated ethics laws.
At present, a committee of senators handles ethics complaints against senators — a system that offers “little transparency, ... and [leaves the public to] wonder if the majority of offenders are being identified and appropriate action taken,” in the opinion of Lynn Teague, advocacy director for the state chapter of the League of Women Voters.
The governor’s committee recommended an independent ethics committee made of private citizens. That, and other recommendations, so far has failed to win Senate support.
When it reconvenes in January, the Senate is scheduled to continue debate on the ethics reform bill passed by the House. Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, R-Richland, indicated the bill might be changed significantly in the Senate.
Senators should know that the people of South Carolina want open, honest government.
They want ethics reform.
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