Hopes for a sweeping ethics reform bill this year likely died in the state Senate on Wednesday night, shortly after senators cited the sudden resignation of their colleague Robert Ford as proof that their current system works.
Ford, D-Charleston, stepped down last week as a Senate panel was concluding that 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 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.”
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, was even more blunt: “Ethics reform went down in flames and so did any chance of passing the Obamacare nullification 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 chairman 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 don’t think it fixes the problem,” Leatherman said of the bill. “I honestly don’t.”
The Senate debated the ethics bill for more than three hours but still had 40 amendments on the table — and the prospect of 150 more, said Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville. “The Senate is getting ready to kill it, and there’s not anything we can do about it,” he said.
Part of the bill would have reconstituted the State Ethics Commission and given it new power in investigating, if not passing judgment on, state lawmakers.
Several senators questioned the need for that, though many praised other parts of the bill, such as new rules requiring political action committees to file reports with the state.
Still, 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 from Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Columbia, who 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 a change so lawmakers would not police themselves but rather would be subject to the State Ethics Commission.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, noted that the 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.
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.