Ethics reform dies in the Senate after two-year battle

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COLUMBIA - South Carolina lawmakers successfully ran out the clock on ethics reform Thursday by allowing a senator to remain on the floor the majority of the day filibustering a different measure.

The bill was hailed as the first attempt at ethics reform in 20 years, but it fell victim to arguments between lawmakers who said the measure didn't go far enough and others who thought it would impede free speech.

The bill's death by filibuster was not a surprise. Several senators were vocal about blocking the bill from even coming up for a debate. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, filibustered the bill through 5 p.m., when the Senate was required to adjourn.

Davis later said senators should return to Columbia next year with the intent of passing "real reform" that would result in South Carolina having the best ethics law in the nation.

"If we went ahead and passed something today, the pressure for real reform would have passed and the idea that we ought to take baby steps in regards to ethics reform is wrong," Davis said. "There is no half measure when it comes to ethics reform."

The bill did not include an independent investigative committee that Gov. Nikki Haley and others said was key to instilling trust in the process. The House, which passed the measure on June 5, had pushed for such a committee, but the Senate rejected it and the compromise version did not include it.

It would have required lawmakers to disclose - for the first time - their sources of income, but not the amounts. Plus, it would have required groups and Super PACs that spend money on campaigns in South Carolina to disclose their donors and would have banned so-called Leadership PACs, lawmaker fundraising groups that raise funds and then spend dollars without significant oversight and scrutiny.

The measure would have set up a committee to study what parts of the Ethics Act should contain criminal penalties; as it stands, all violations, inadvertent or not, can be prosecuted as criminal misdemeanors.

The bill was dangerous and should have been called "The Politician Protection Act," said Ashley Landess, president of the South Carolina Policy Council. The group, along with several others, has been calling for ethics reform for years.

"I think it's clear they were deliberately trying to squelch any criticism of any of them," Landess said. "This bill would have absolutely invited a challenge in federal court. Let's not pretend this was anything other than them trying to protect themselves."

Senators invoked Haley's name several times while blocking the bill; Haley had been an advocate for independent oversight and income disclosure. When asked about the measure Tuesday, Haley said the bill had turned into "income disclosure" and was no longer ethics reform. She did say, however, that "income disclosure does move the ball forward."

After the measure died on the floor, Haley's campaign issued a news release, criticizing Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden. Sheheen, Haleys Democratic opponent in the gubernatorial race, was one of many Democrats and Libertarian Republicans who voted several times to allow Davis to remain on the floor, blocking the bill from coming up for a vote.

"The people of our state have fought for and deserve an open, honest and accountable government that serves them, not the other way around - and yet time after time career politicians like Vince Sheheen have fought against those efforts to clean up government, just as he did twice today, all to hide the true sources of his trial lawyer income and that of his buddies," said Rob Godfrey, Haley's campaign spokesman, through a release. "It's wrong, and he should be ashamed - the people deserve better."

Before Haley's campaign issued a statement, however, Sheheen said he would not pass a "fake bill" so that "Nikki Haley can pretend she's doing something."

"I'm not going to pass a bill that doesn't have real independent oversight of the governor, the Senate or the House," Sheheen said. "I'm sure she'll try to twist what happened today and pretend this was a real ethics bill when we know that it didn't do any of the things that even she said should occur."

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who continually pushed on the floor to have the bill brought up for discussion, said Senators will push for ethics reform next year when they return. Martin added that pressure to pass ethics reform might be greater then, depending on "what happens across the street," alluding to the case of House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston. Harrell is being investigated by a state grand jury for allegedly using campaign funds for personal use, including funds that paid for office-related trips on his personal airplane.

"I think just the mere fact that the argument has been made over there that we're immune from prosecution until the ethics issues are addressed by the House and Senate ethics committee, that's going to stir some folks up," Martin said. "Depending on how that case comes out obviously that could help drive that issue next year."

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.

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