A real-life case for ethics reform
Anyone who doubts that the South Carolina Legislature needs ethics reform might want to consider Rep. Bill Chumley's recent brush with ethics laws.
The House Ethics Committee on Monday dismissed a complaint against Mr. Chumley, a Republican from Woodruff, but the story reads like a treatise on what's wrong with state ethics laws.
First, the laws are not clear. Earlier this year, the House Ethics Committee said Rep. Chumley's use of state planes was not "an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars and resources."
Mr. Chumley, sponsor of a bill to nullify the federal Affordable Care Act in South Carolina, flew commentator Walter Williams from Washington to speak to a subcommittee meeting in Columbia. The value of the plane trip was $6,390.
But the House Ethics Committee changed its tune and unanimously cleared Mr. Chumley, saying he did not knowingly break the law or benefit financially from Williams' visit.
Officials say state law doesn't specifically address such a circumstance as Mr. Chumley's. It should.
Indeed, Rep. Chumley based his decision to use the plane on an opinion by a House Ethics Committee lawyer, even though she said that it carried no weight - that the Ethics Committee has the final say. Without a clearly worded law, legislators can find ways to justify what they want to do, even if it isn't in the best interest of the state.
Rep. Chumley wanted to promote his bill through Mr. Williams, who sometimes fills in for radio personality Rush Limbaugh and is well known as an advocate for states nullifying the federal Affordable Care law. He spoke 30 minutes to a subcommittee in support of a bill that most people agreed was going to pass anyway.
While Mr. Chumley did not benefit financially, he certainly gained political attention.
Another problem: Under present law, the 10-member bipartisan House Ethics Committee decision closes the book. The complaint will not be heard by the State Ethics Commission, and that's a stunning shortcoming.
The House committee is comprised of the accused's colleagues. They work together and sometimes socialize with each other. They look to each other for political support. So when the committee makes a decision, it is suspect in the eyes of the public. People wonder, with reason, whose back is being scratched.
When the Legislature convenes in January, ethics reform should be at the top of its list of priorities. And at the top of its list of changes should be the elimination of the House and Senate ethics committees. Legislators should answer to the State Ethics Commission, as does every other elected official in South Carolina.
Some clarity would help, too. For example, just because the state law doesn't preclude it, a lawmaker should not be permitted to make the decision independently to use public resources to fly someone in to help his cause. Limited state resources should be used judiciously.
The state's ethics laws have not undergone significant reform in 22 years. Gov. Nikki Haley has taken it on as part of her agenda. So has her gubernatorial opponent, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden.
Sadly, some legislators have derailed legislative efforts in the past, saying changes aren't needed and people don't care about the issue.
The recent case of Rep. Bill Chumley shows that changes are needed, starting with a change in attitude by those legislators who have so far obstructed ethics reform.