State House expands ethics committee, eliminates partisan dominance
COLUMBIA — The majority party of the state House will no longer dominate the chamber’s Ethics Committee, the panel that handles complaints against state representatives.
The House voted Tuesday to add four members to the previously six-member committee and require that the panel be comprised of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. Under the new rules, the chairman of the committee must come from the House majority party, currently the GOP.
The committee had been made up of five Republicans and one Democrat.
Republicans called the move to redesign the panel a good first step as a collection of legislative and other appointed groups weigh reforms to the state’s widely criticized ethics laws.
“We don’t want anyone to think this is some kind of cure-all,” said Rep. Kenny Bingham, a Cayce Republican who was elected chairman of the committee.
Ethics reform could include elimination of the House and Senate ethics committees and giving their duties to another body.
The Senate Ethics Committee already is made up of 10 members split between the parties.
Gov. Nikki Haley and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson support eliminating the legislative committees and giving their jobs to the State Ethics Commission.
Currently, the Ethics Commission handles complaints against all public officials except state senators and representatives.
But eliminating the committees — should the Legislature decide to go that route in the upcoming session — likely would have to go before voters in two years in the form of a constitutional amendment.
House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-St. Matthews, said Tuesday’s vote shows the House thinks its committee is the appropriate body to handle complaints against current and former members.
Conversely, Bingham said the House could still decide to eliminate the committee but that reform was needed now because the committee is likely to be around for at least the next two years.
The committee has nine new members, with Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, the only returner.
Pitts defended the previous members of the committee, saying there was no partisan motivation among them, but the GOP-dominated makeup of the panel gave the public that impression.
The previously low-key committee was thrust into the spotlight this year when it undertook an unprecedented investigation of Haley, the first time the panel has investigated a sitting governor. Haley was formerly a state representative from Lexington County.
The House committee voted unanimously to dismiss three of four charges against Haley. The panel’s lone Democrat voted in favor of a charge that Haley should have disclosed her work for a Midlands engineering firm on ethics forms.
The committee could once again take on a high-profile role in the legislative session that starts in January.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, is expected to eventually face a complaint related to his self-reimbursement practices. Harrell, who as expected was re-elected speaker without opposition Tuesday, said there has not been a complaint filed against him to date.
The election of leadership posts and the changes to the House Ethics Committee were part of the House’s biennial reorganization session that follows each election of new House members. The process continues today with the appointment of members to most House committees and election of committee chairmen.