COLUMBIA — There was no shortage of ideas for overhauling the state’s widely criticized ethics laws during testimony before a S.C. House GOP panel Thursday.
A cascade of ideas from annual polygraph tests for officials who handle large amounts of money to the more widely mentioned full income disclosure for lawmakers were put on the table.
Ashley Landess, the president of the limited-government supporting S.C. Policy Council and a frequent critic of the state’s governance structure, said state ethics laws make legal many practices that are unethical.
“It’s tempting to limit reform to tweaks, but that won’t solve the problem,” she said. “Those in power are allowed to operate with no accountability.”
Among Landess’ suggestions to lawmakers Thursday: ax legislators’ authority to appoint judges, do away with boards and commissions and give the governor more power.
Landess said under the state’s current legislatively dominated model, the governor is little more than a cheerleader instead of a CEO.
But one of the most frequently talked about suggestions made again by Landess and others — taking away lawmakers’ authority to sanction their own through legislative ethics committees — likely would take years to pass.
That’s because without a constitutional amendment passed by voters, lawmakers must have final authority to punish their fellow members, said Rob Wilcox, dean of the University of South Carolina School of Law.
Gov. Nikki Haley in August included abolishing the committees in a proposed package of ethics reforms. Haley wants the committees’ jobs handed off to the State Ethics Commission.
Deputy Attorney General Barry Bernstein told lawmakers that the new group created by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, the S.C. Public Integrity Unit, can serve as the entity that investigates ethics issues, regardless of what reforms lawmakers ultimately pass.
The unit includes officials from the Attorney General’s Office, the state Inspector General’s Office, the state Department of Revenue, the State Law Enforcement Division and the Ethics Commission.
Bernstein said the unit would need lawmakers to pass a few changes to allow the unit to operate effectively.
One is an exemption that would allow the Revenue Department to share tax information with law enforcement, he said.
John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause of South Carolina, told legislators Thursday that various forms of money are the source of most ethical problems at the Statehouse.
Crangle said candidates should face new limits on how much campaign cash they can receive from political action committees and corporations.
Thursday’s meeting was the first for the House GOP’s version of an ethics study panel. About 75 people showed up for the hearing compared with just a handful for a similar House Democratic ethics study panel a week earlier. The state Senate also has its own ethics study group. And Haley last month followed up her own reform proposals by creating the S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform, a panel made up of no sitting elected officials that will offer up suggested reforms to the Legislature by Jan. 28.
Lawmakers have said they intend to work together to introduce reforms in the session that begins in January, despite the diffuse nature of ethics reform discussion.
“I certainly think we’ll be able to assimilate that into one ethics reform,” said Sumter GOP Rep. Murrell Smith, the chairman of the House Republican study group.
Ethics reform has been thrust into the spotlight in South Carolina by a series of high-profile dust-ups this year.
They include former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard’s resignation following ethics violations, a summer hearing that ultimately cleared Haley of charges she illegally lobbied while a House member and questions surrounding House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s self-reimbursement of about $280,000 from his campaign account since 2008. Harrell’s office has said the Charleston Republican is in compliance with state law.
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