A badly needed ethics overhaul for the Legislature got a big boost Monday from an independent committee appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley. Its recommendations would provide tougher standards and stronger enforcement.
Included among the recommendations are heightened requirements for reporting income and more disclosure of potential conflicts of interest related to the business activities of elected officials. Each is essential to restore public confidence.
The committee would strengthen the Freedom of Information Act by expediting requests for public information, and assuring that those seeking documents aren’t charged exorbitant fees. Legislative exemptions from the FOIA would be limited to draft bills.
And the committee recommends that an independent commission judge legislators on ethics matters, rather than panels in the House and Senate. All other elected officials face the state Ethics Commission.
Independent adjudication is central to meaningful reform, and can be accomplished without having to change the state Constitution, according to the committee, which was chaired by former attorneys general Travis Medlock and Henry McMaster.
The panel also supports the creation of an investigatory team to probe criminal charges of public corruption.
The governor’s committee wisely urged the elimination of “leadership PACs.” Those political action committees are prohibited by rule in the Senate, but not in the House. Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, is affiliated with a leadership PAC that has channeled about a half-million dollars to the S.C. House Republican Caucus, the state Republican Party and more than 130 mostly incumbent Republican candidates for legislative office.
Listed as “Exhibit A” in the report is a comparison of state ethics rules showing just how badly South Carolina has lagged in the 20 years since it last undertook comprehensive reform.
For example, it is one of six states where the ethics commission has no jurisdiction over the Legislature. It is the sole state requiring disclosure of only one source of income — that derived from the government. It is one of three states that allows more than 10 days to respond to an FOIA.
Clearly, South Carolina has fallen behind on the ethics front. The Legislature should welcome the guidance offered by this bipartisan committee. Its recommendations provide a foundation for the reform effort, while adding to the momentum for necessary changes.