If the Legislature agrees on an ethics reform bill this year, it is certain not to be perfect. The subject is complex, and everyone will likely have had to compromise on one point or another.
But Gov. Nikki Haley was right to reject altogether a compromise that would have established an "independent ethics panel" that is not independent at all.
Unless oversight of ethics complaints, investigation and adjudication is truly independent, South Carolina's ethics laws will be little more than a sham.
The illogic of allowing legislators to sit in judgment of their fellow legislators, members of the same "club" and likely to be either a political friend (not objective) or a political foe (not objective), is stunning.
At best it is ineffective, because oversight panel members would not have the expertise to investigate violations. At worst, it is an easy way to let ethics violations pass with a wink and a nod among pals.
Last year Gov. Haley impaneled an impressive bipartisan group of former statesmen and lawyers to recommend ethics reforms. The group's findings were spot-on. The House should abandon this latest effort and start over, using that template.
Ethics oversight is not the only piece of the puzzle. Lawmakers should be required to reveal the sources of their incomes. And rules governing the use of campaign funds need to be clarified.
Routine audits need to be done. Surely the few lawmakers whose spending has raised objections aren't the only ones whose accounts could use some sunshine. This is a place where some compromise can take place. One version would give lawmakers a pass on their first offense. Fix it, and avoid a penalty.
But oversight is an essential ingredient to reform, and the House's recommended oversight commission fails the smell test. It would be composed of four legislators (two Republicans and two Democrats), elected by the Senate and House; four active judges chosen by the S.C. Supreme Court; and four non-lawmakers appointed by the governor.
The Haley panel recommended a criminal investigatory team with members from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, Department of Revenue, Office of the Inspector General and the State Ethics Commission, with lawyers from the Attorney General's Office. A separate committee would adjudicate complaints.
So far, unfortunately, lawmakers seem unwilling to make substantive changes in ethics oversight.
The League of Women Voters monitors this issue closely, and takes a strong position in favor of truly independent oversight. At the very least, it calls for any parts of the process that are not independent to be public.
This proposal falls short of that minimal standard.
Perhaps it's time to remind the governor of her pledge from last November: "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."
If it gets the job done, give it a try.
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