Hopes for a sweeping ethics reform bill this year died in the state Senate Wednesday evening, in part because Senators cited the sudden resignation of their colleague Robert Ford as proof their current system works.
Ford, D-Charleston, stepped down last week as a Senate panel was concluding he violated multiple ethics laws, including spending his campaign cash. A criminal investigation of him has begun.
The Senate voted 23-19 to adjourn before taking a vote on the ethics bill, and with only one more day left in the session, its prospects appear done.
“It’s about moving the ball forward and we’re running out of time,” said state Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, who voted against adjournment. “For all practical purposes, I don’t think ethics is going to get passed this year.”
State Sen Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, was even more blunt: “Ethics reform went down in flames and so did any chance of passing the Obamacare nullication bill. ... It’s a travesty we weren’t able to get a second reading on either of these bills today.”
Earlier, Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, asked what would have been different with Ford’s case under the new ethics legislation.
Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Myrtle Beach and chair of the Senate Ethics Committee, replied, “As to the end result, no difference. ... Is it broken here? Is it broken in the House? I think a 20-year record in the Senate is pretty good evidence to say it ain’t broken here.”
“I’m going to seriously consider not voting for this because I don’t think it fixes the problem,” Leatherman said. “I honestly don’t.”
The Senate debated the ethics bill for more than three hours late today before realizing that they still had between 40 and more than 200 amendments still to wade through.
“I think it’s going to be difficult to get to a vote on this bill,” Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, said. “The Senate is getting ready to kill it, and there’s not anything we can do about it.”
The bill would have reconstituted the State Ethics Commission and given it new power in investigating —if not passing judgment on — state lawmakers.
But Rankin said ethics — while one of Gov. Nikki Haley’s top three legislative priorities — is not a big issue back home.
“People are not talking to me in Horry County about ethics reform,” he said. “They’re talking to me about infrastructure. They’re talking to me about education… They ain’t talking about this.”
Before the Senate debate began Wednesday, Haley urged Senators to act, saying what was at stake was “whether South Carolinians get better, more honest, more open government.”
She described the pending bill as “the most sweeping ethics reforms in a generation” and called on lawmakers to “do the right thing.”
Last week, Haley’s spokesman Rob Godfrey said Ford’s ethics saga was “a real-world example of why ethics reform is so important.”
That drew a sharp rebuke earlier today from Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Columbia, said he “blew a gasket” when he heard the remark because Ford’s case showed the system worked.
Among Haley’s wish list items was changes so lawmakers would not police themselves but rather would be subject to the State Ethics Commission.
However, State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, noted the State Ethics Commission took far longer to investigate and judge former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard – who resigned last year in the wake of ethics violations – than the Senate needed to act in Ford’s case.
“We’re being asked to trade what worked well,” he said.
Hutto also asked why the House couldn’t investigate any questions about Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell’s use of his campaign cash to reimburse his airplane “Why do we have to accept service on a mess that wasn’t created here?” Hutto asked. “Because the messes that we’re created here, we’ve dealt with.”
Malloy said he was the only one who looked in Ford’s eyes when he signed his resignation letter. “I don’t need any more transparency than I had this past week,” he said.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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