Haley tasks new panel with shaping ethics reform
COLUMBIA — Can a new ethics study panel created Thursday by Gov. Nikki Haley spur effective, substantive reform of South Carolina’s widely criticized ethics laws?
S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform members (unless otherwise noted, officials were appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley):
Co-chairman Henry McMaster: U.S. attorney, 1981-85; state GOP chairman, 1993-2002; Republican attorney general, 2003-11.
Co-chairman Travis Medlock: S.C. House, 1965-72; S.C. Senate, 1973-76; Democratic attorney general, 1983-95.
Charles Bierbauer: Dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Mass Communications and Information Studies.
Ben Hagood: Assistant U.S. attorney, 1990-97; S.C. House, R-Sullivan’s Island, 2003-08; and former judge advocate in U.S. Marine Corps.
Kelly Jackson: Assistant solicitor for the 5th Circuit, 1991-93, and for the 12th Circuit, 1993-98; Solicitor for the 3rd Judicial Circuit, 1999-2010. Appointed by state Attorney General Alan Wilson.
Susi McWilliams: Chairwoman of the State Ethics Commission, 2009-10; and commission member, 2005-08.
Bill Rogers: Executive director of the S.C. Press Association.
John Simmons: U.S. attorney, 1992-93; member of the State Ethics Commission, 1993-95; chief of the State Grand Jury, 1995-96.
Xavier Starkes: Assistant U.S. attorney, 1992-93.
Monica Key: Public relations manager at Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations. Appointed by House Ethics Committee Chairman Roland Smith.
Member to be appointed by Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Wes Hayes.
Haley thinks so, saying the Commission on Ethics Reform she developed with an executive order Thursday represents the “cleanest, clearest, best way to get true ethics reform” in the state.
Haley’s executive order follows a statewide tour in late August in which she and state Attorney General Alan Wilson laid out a series of ethics reform proposals.
Haley was the subject last summer of a House Ethics Committee investigation of allegations that she had illegally lobbied and exploited her office while a House member from Lexington County. She was cleared of all charges.
She now supports eliminating legislative ethics committees and consolidating their function into the State Ethics Commission.
“We have seen too many elected officials, rightly or wrongly, put under that ethics cloud,” she said. “And so that has led to an erosion of the public trust.”
Haley said the idea behind the study panel was not to focus on individual cases, but on a general need to address “weak” and “vague” ethics laws.
“The majority of people that come here, they come here to serve for all the right reasons, they come hear wanting to follow the rules,” she said. “But we shouldn’t wait for another ‘Operation Lost Trust’ to have this happen. We should be in front of it.”
That FBI sting shook the state in the summer of 1990, when more than two dozen lawmakers, lobbyists and others were caught in the largest legislative public corruption prosecution in U.S. history.
The scandal resulted in the last major overhaul of state ethics law, the same law now seen by many as wholly inadequate.
But with the field of ethics reform study groups already crowded, the leaders of a pair of state government watchdog groups are skeptical.
“When they don’t want to address the problem, they just appoint a panel,” S.C. Policy Council President Ashley Landess said. Landess served on a Haley-appointed budget task force the governor appointed in 2010 as she prepared to take office.
John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause of South Carolina, said Haley’s “second effort” on ethics reform is an attempt to get ahead of the issue.
There will be no current elected officials on the 11-member study panel, which will be co-chaired by a pair of former state attorneys general: Republican Henry McMaster and Democrat Travis Medlock.
Other members of the committee include Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, and several former public prosecutors. Haley appointed eight members, while Wilson and House Ethics Committee Chairman Roland Smith of Warrenville appointed one member each. Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Wes Hayes of Rock Hill has not yet made his appointment.
The group will hold at least two public hearings and is expected to factor in recommendations from the public and state ethics officials.
Haley gave the panel until Jan. 28 to submit recommendations to her and members of the General Assembly.
According to Haley’s executive order, some of the issues the group is expected to take on are:
Whether to abolish legislative ethics committees, who police their fellow lawmakers.
Income disclosure, conflict of interest and campaign fund spending rules for public officials.
State and private plane usage rules.
Response times and costs for open records requests.
Exemptions from public disclosure laws.
Regardless of what the group ultimately suggests, legislators are the only ones who can pass ethics reform. Those lawmakers already have formed their own ethics study committees. There are two panels, one Democratic and another Republican, made up of House members, and another composed of a bipartisan group of senators.
The new legislative session begins in January.
In addition to Haley’s ethics inquiry, 2012 has seen a string of high-profile ethics controversies including former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard’s resignation in March after being indicted for using his campaign account to buy personal items.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell also has faced questions after a Post and Courier report revealed he had reimbursed himself about $280,000 from his campaign account since summer 2008.
Harrell returned $23,000 to his campaign coffers after saying he lost receipts for those purchases in an office move. He has said he is in compliance with all ethics laws.
Harrell has since said he probably will be more specific on financial records in the future and has called for stronger ethics laws.