Growing demand boosts chances for ethics reform
Gov. Nikki Haley has joined the chorus for ethics reform and in doing so has been sharply rapped by her legislative critics, including House Speaker Bobby Harrell. We’d say that the governor’s efforts on behalf of reform are as welcome as the speaker’s would be.
The governor, who has been on the ethics defensive this year, sought to seize the reform initiative on Wednesday in a series of appearances with Attorney General Alan Wilson.
Gov. Haley called for an end to House and Senate policing of their own ethical matters.
“We think only one agency should be in charge of state ethics,” the governor said as she endorsed the state Ethics Commission for the job.
House and Senate ethics committees are responsible for hearing ethics complaints regarding their own members, a situation she likened to “the fox guarding the henhouse.”
Rep. Harrell, R-Charleston, was more critical of the messenger than the message: “The biggest driving force behind the need for ethics reform in our state was brought about by Gov. Haley’s own questionable actions.”
But the House Ethics Committee in June cleared Mrs. Haley of charges that she illegally lobbied on behalf of a hospital and an engineering firm while a House member. The state Supreme Court has since agreed to hear an appeal of the lower court ruling that sent the ethics issue to the Legislature.
In any event, eliminating the legislative ethics committees is a solid proposal that would reduce the potential for collegial deference on legislative ethics complaints.
So, too, is Attorney General Wilson’s proposal for a Public Integrity Unit to investigate ethics complaints. The unit would streamline the process, and would operate as a collaboration of existing agencies, including the Attorney General’s office, the State Law Enforcement Division, the Ethics Commission and the Department of Revenue.
Other ethics recommendations from Gov. Haley include broad disclosure of income by elected officials and making the Legislature subject to the same requirements of the Freedom of Information Act as other agencies.
Meanwhile, another reform plan is being developed jointly by the legislative ethics committees, the state Ethics Commission and the attorney general’s office. The Haley proposals could be viewed as supplementary to that effort — or as a prod to legislative action on reform.
The last major reform occurred as a result of the legislative Lost Trust scandal two decades ago, and included the creation of the Cabinet form of government to provide greater accountability under the state’s chief executive.
The most substantive criticism of the governor’s plan speaks directly to the value of Cabinet accountability.
Ashley Landess, director of the S.C. Policy Council, a conservative think tank, said the governor ought to follow her own advice about better compliance with the FOIA among the Cabinet agencies she directs. That’s a reform idea that doesn’t require legislative action.
Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, has the right attitude on how to proceed with ethics reform.
“We will work collaboratively with the governor, the attorney general and the Senate Ethics Committee chairman and staff to get a bill in a form that we can take it up early in the session and have an opportunity to not only hash it out but get it to the finish line before the end of the session,” he said in comments to The Greenville News.
That enlightened perspective, from the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, reflects the growing acknowledgement of the need for ethics reform in our state government.
And that justified view is not confined to those who serve in the Legislature.