Ethics reform can be expected to advance in the Legislature this year, with three separate committees currently studying reform plans. But will it go far enough?
Not if it doesn’t include a provision for the independent review of legislators on ethics-related charges.
One proposed reform — an office of public integrity — would ensure an independent investigation of legislators accused of ethical violations. It would include staff of the State Ethics Commission, the attorney general, SLED, the state Department of Revenue and the state inspector general.
But legislators have been advised that the voters will have to endorse a change in the state Constitution to eliminate the legislative ethics committees, which sit in judgment of their colleagues. And that can’t happen before the next statewide general election in 2014.
In a column on our Commentary page today, former state Sen. Mike Rose makes a persuasive case for advancing the matter absent a referendum. Legislators should follow up on his findings. Independent ethics oversight is central to providing heightened accountability for our elected legislators.
If House and Senate members continue being investigated and judged by their colleagues on ethics matters, it will weaken other upgrades in the law. And it will diminish public confidence in the process.
All other elected officials facing ethics complaints in South Carolina are required to go before the State Ethics Commission. So should legislators.
Having legislators serve as the guardian of legislative ethics has often been likened to the fox guarding the henhouse. That has to change — the sooner the better.
Mr. Rose suggests those existing committees could handle matters like disorderly conduct, while more serious allegations could be delegated to an independent body.
The Legislature appears to be on the track for independent investigation of legislative ethics violations. They should further pursue the possibility of a speedy change for independent adjudication.
The momentum for ethics reform should be sustained to the extent possible.