COLUMBIA - The push for ethics reform, one of the Statehouse's hottest political fights, has a difficult road ahead.
The debate planned this week on the S.C. House floor is already fraught with several potential land mines.
The ethics-related case being pursued by Attorney General Alan Wilson against House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, has interjected politics in way that lawmakers say makes even common sense reforms more difficult.
Some S.C. senators and Gov. Nikki Haley have already rejected the House's preliminary version of the bill. Haley's pushback on the House's proposal has rankled some members.
And outside critics have already dismissed parts of legislators' ethics push, saying the effort appears to be moving in the wrong direction.
House members say, though, that they are optimistic a bill that achieves sound reforms can be passed - even if not everyone is happy with it.
The Harrell factor
The ongoing case against Harrell hasn't helped the ethics push. Harrell, accused of using his campaign funds for personal use, has found himself in a protracted court fight with Wilson, who referred the case to a grand jury this year. While the case is in limbo after a recent court decision, the ethics bill has been seen by allies of both men as a way to change the law to help them.
That's not true, said Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, the House majority leader who has shepherded the bill. But it makes achieving reform more difficult, he said.
"We're not talking about that," Bannister said, saying the bill would not help either Wilson or Harrell. "We want to deal with future stuff."
Harrell couldn't be reached on Friday.
One of the biggest critiques of suggested reforms is that there is no push to do away with legislators' practice of using campaign funds for office-related expenses. That has been one provision that critics say has been subject to abuse and has been the source of much recent controversy.
The House proposal, in fact, appears to broaden legislators' ability to spend campaign funds for office-related expenses. 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. As it stands, any potential infraction on campaign finance reports - mistake or no - is a potential criminal misdemeanor.
Ashley Landess, president of the small government advocacy group South Carolina Policy Council, said legislators had gotten far off the mark from what advocates wanted from ethics reform.
She has called the new 30-day window to fix campaign finance reports a "get out of jail free card."
John Crangle, director of Common Cause and long a leading voice on the push for ethics reform, said that lawmakers should do away with the practice of using campaign funds for office-related business.
"In the old days, you could use campaign money for anything, you could just stuff it in your pocket," Crangle said. "They've got to stop the use of campaign money for non-campaign purposes. That has been a chronic source of abuse and wrongdoing ever since they put the exception in the law."
Gov. Haley weighs in
Haley's criticism comes from how lawmakers plan to address a call for an independent body to investigate lawmakers. In an effort to equalize that across all branches, the House is proposing a panel that would have the power to investigate ethics complaints against members of all three branches. Disciplinary decisions would be left up to the bodies' respective ethics bodies.
The panel would include four legislators, four gubernatorial appointees and four judges. Haley's office has called the inclusion of lawmakers on the panel a "poison pill" because she believes lawmakers should not have any role in investigating themselves.
Some House members said they are not worried about Haley's criticism. Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, the House minority leader, brought up Haley's alleged ethics infractions when she was a member of the House of Representatives. She faced allegations of lobbying for groups with state interests. Haley was later cleared of any wrongdoing.
"The governor is the reason we're doing all of this," Rutherford said. "It's like Barry Bonds coming out and telling you what to do with steroids."
Haley said in an interview with The Post and Courier that she is hopeful that House members can emerge with key reforms, especially ensuring that any panel that investigates lawmakers is independent and that lawmakers are required to disclose their sources of income.
She called the current House proposal "nothing short of disappointing."
Haley brushed off Rutherford's comment, noting that he is the minority party leader, and saying that she pushed for an income disclosure requirement as a House member.
While the disclosure of personal income is still on the table - South Carolina is one of the last states not to have such a provision - Haley said she especially hopes House members reconsider their stance on an independent body to investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers.
"There is no one that feels comfortable with legislators being the police for other legislators," she said. "It's wrong. This is about doing the right thing."
She said she expects a push from House members who have the voters in mind. "There are a lot of good legislators that want to make this right," Haley said. "There are going to be some legislators that want to keep doors closed and things hidden."
Crimes vs. transparency
Some legislators said it's difficult to balance ethics laws that punish violators and ensuring good governance. Harrell has been attacked for using his personal airplane to get around on trips related to his office, then reimbursing the trips from his campaign account.
Rutherford said Harrell is allowed to get a lot more done by using his airplane. "How fortunate is this state to have a speaker who has his own airplane?" he asked.
Bannister, a leader on the bill, said many from the outside are looking for ways for legislators to be penalized for ethics infractions. That shouldn't be the intent of the law, he said.
Except for punishing "obviously illegal activity," the Ethics Act is intended for voters to have the information to understand what their elected officials are doing. He and others said they can be penalized at the ballot box.
"The elegance of the Ethics Act being a disclosure statute is . what it's all about," Bannister said. "We should be focusing on the people who are not reporting."
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.
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