COLUMBIA - A S.C. House committee pushed forward an ethics reform proposal Tuesday that creates a new panel to investigate all three branches of government and gives that new board more power to do so.
The bill moved unanimously by the House Judiciary Committee was immediately decried by critics - as well as Gov. Nikki Haley - as the opposite of the kind of ethics reform that many have sought. As the debate moves to the House floor, the discussion around ethics has grown increasingly political as House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, has faced ethics-related allegations around whether he used his campaign funds for personal use. Harrell has called those charges politically motivated. Critics say that his case is an example of why an independent body to investigate members of the House and Senate is needed.
The Senate rejected calls for an independent panel and moved a bill that requires lawmakers to disclose, for the first time, their sources of income, among other changes. The House has embraced income disclosure but veered markedly away on other reforms.
The House's proposal pushed on Tuesday creates a new panel that would consist of 12 members selected by all three branches of government and has the power to investigate allegations of ethics violations by officials and candidates from all three branches. It would have subpoena power and could also ask state police or government accountants for help in investigations.
Haley rejected the proposal. She told legislators at a Republican Caucus lunch that she would criticize them if they continued with the bill, according to Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester. Haley's spokesman has previously called the 12-member committee a "poison pill" since it hasn't been embraced by her or the Senate.
"Instead of true reform, today's amendment does nothing to fix the actual problem - legislators investigating legislators," said Doug Mayer, the governor's spokesman. "The governor hopes the full House will listen to the citizens of our state and do what is right: create a truly independent agency that exists to serve the public interest, not the interests of legislators."
Mayer also disagreed with Delleney's characterization of the meeting, calling it "nonsense."
"The governor went to tell the Caucus where she stood on the issue and why she believes the actions they took today are wrong," he said.
The independent commission's publicized findings would not be binding. Power to punish violators would remain with existing House and Senate ethics committees and judiciary and executive review boards. The commission would be composed of four legislators - two Republicans and two Democrats - elected by the Senate and House; four active judges chosen by the Supreme Court and four non-lawmakers appointed by the governor.
The House bill also appears to broaden legislators' ability to use campaign funds for uses related to their office, which has been subject to abuse in the past. It adds language that would allow elected officials to use the dollars to pay for family members' expenses while on official business.
The bill also gives lawmakers 30 days to "cure" some unintentional mistakes made on campaign finance reports.
The House panel's move was immediately dismissed by critics. Ashley Landess, president of the Libertarian-leaning think tank South Carolina Policy Council, said legislators had gotten far from the mark of what advocates wanted from ethics reform.
She called the new 30-day window to fix campaign finance reports a "get out of jail free card."
Advocates want the legislature to stop using campaign funds for official business or office use - not expand the reasons for doing so. She said broadening the use of campaign funds to include family members' expenses is indicative of where the reform effort has gone.
"You have special interest campaign donors funding official state business, which they then hide from the public because they argue it wasn't taxpayer funded," Landess said. "The government isn't supposed to be funded by special interests and neither is official business."
Rep. Delleney, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said that South Carolina's Constitution calls for the House and Senate to investigate their own. Legislators have now brought in outside voices and assured that investigations are done properly for all three branches of government.
"We have taken the foxes out of all the chicken houses in this bill," Delleney said. "This is an independent investigatory commission."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.
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