It has been 22 years since South Carolina’s General Assembly passed meaningful ethics reform, and it came then only because Operation Lost Trust revealed widespread corruption.
Since then, most attempts to improve the law have failed — often in the Senate.
So it is encouraging that ethics reform is expected to be one of the first orders of business when the state Senate reconvenes in January.
Ethics reform also seems to be emerging as an issue of concern in the 2014 race. The bill Republican Gov. Nikki Haley is pushing isn’t exactly what S.C. Sen. Vince Sheheen (her likely Democratic opponent) supports, but the fact that both are committed to ethics cleansing is significant.
Gov. Haley has held several press conferences on the subject, including one in Charleston Monday. She has sent a blunt message to legislators: “If there is a legislator who blinks, who stalls, who tries to avoid or hijack any part of this, that is a red flag that will be exposed.”
That’s a far more welcome stance than the one of a Senate committee that decided last month that state ethics laws are just fine as they are. Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, even tried to make the case that ethics reform isn’t needed because nobody stops lawmakers at grocery stores advocating it.
Perhaps Gov. Haley should investigate whether there are other reasons those committee members do not want reform.
The governor put together a committee, which produced a solid list of recommended reforms. One important one was to establish an independent ethics panel that would consider ethics complaints about legislators.
That provision has been watered down, but the bill nevertheless has support from the League of Women Voters, which has vigorously promoted ethics reform. The organization would like to see a stronger bill, but it believes the legislation is still worth enacting.
Among other things, it would require legislators to reveal who pays them (but not the amount they were paid); and it would establish an independent ethics committee to investigate complaints (but punishment would have to be approved by lawmakers).
Sen. Sheheen has written to the Senate Ethics Committee chairman with his ideas about ethics reform. They include clearly codifying which campaign actions are allowable and which aren’t. The governor has been under fire for her use of state vehicles and staff on trips that critics believe should be considered fund-raising trips. The Ethics Commission has supported Mrs. Haley.
Conversely, critics of Mr. Sheheen, an attorney, suggest it is unethical that he is representing clients in front of magistrates whom he recommended for appointment. They fear the judge might be tempted to show favoritism, even if the situation is legal.
Sen. Sheheen, however, since 2008 has been filing legislation that would give the S.C. Supreme Court the authority to appoint magistrates — a move even some Haley supporters endorse. His efforts have gone nowhere.
Gov. Haley says her aim is to eliminate any “ethical gray areas ... so no other governor has to go through what I’ve gone through.” She has paid an ethics fine for failing to report addresses of some contributors and has reimbursed the state for using state-owned vehicles to campaign.
She has also begun work on a policy regarding the retention of records for the governor’s office. And she and the State Law Enforcement Division have agreed on when she will reimburse the state for using its vehicles to campaign.
The back-and-forth between the governor and Sen. Sheheen is to be expected.
But their common theme is what speaks the loudest: It’s time to reform the state’s ethics laws.
It was in 2012, after all, that Ken Ard, a Republican, resigned as lieutenant governor and entered a guilty plea to ethics charges.
This year, Sen. Robert Ford, a Charleston Democrat, resigned during an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee.
Gov. Haley, who has promised to focus on bringing more jobs to South Carolina, said ethics reform is important to burnish the image of the state.
But even more important is reassuring South Carolinians that their elected officials are behaving in an ethical manner.