Haley signs S.C. ethics law after long battle

Gov. Nikki Haley on Thursday signs two ethics reform bills in Easley surrounded by lawmakers and advocates for the laws.

EASLEY — Gov. Nikki Haley said it was a long campaign to get the General Assembly to make strides on ethics reform as she signed the bill into law Thursday but stressed there is more to be done.

Haley said she was “giddy as can be” during the signing ceremony at the Easley Law Enforcement Center.

Lawmakers and advocates spent the past four years working to upgrade the state’s ethics laws, finally passing bills that address independent investigations into lawmaker misdeeds and income disclosure. Both came about during the final hours of the 2016 session.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said that after the ethics reform effort had stalled last year, it was unusual for lawmakers to take the topic up again in this year’s second part of a two-year session. Martin is credited with working more than anyone to move the legislation through the Senate chamber.

“Normally when you have a major issue like that, you just sort of punt it to the next session,” he said. “But we were determined, the governor was determined, and after four years now, we finally bring it home here today.”

Haley stressed and praised the role Martin played in pushing the measures through, giving Martin her endorsement less than a week before he will face challenger Rex Rice in a GOP runoff election to retain his Upstate seat.

“He is my number one ally in the Senate,” Haley said. “And I will tell you: I need him to come back. I strongly support Larry Martin for Senate.”

Under the new law, beginning in April, House and Senate members will be investigated by an independent eight-member ethics commission when they are accused of wrongdoing.

Lawmakers currently are policed solely by their colleagues.

Beginning in January, lawmakers also will be required to disclose independent sources of private income, with the goal of revealing any possible conflicts of interest.

Creating an independent panel to do investigations of lawmakers accused of wrongdoing was important because it eliminates the appearance of the “fox guarding the henhouse,” Haley said.

“When there was an ethics complaint, your desk mate might be on it (the old legislative ethics committee) or your friend over here might be on it,” she said. “When you look at the independent investigations, it’s not only good for the public to know that we’re cracking down on ethics, it’s good for the elected officials to know that it’s going to be independent, that it’s not going to be political. It’s going to be handled properly.”

Haley said disclosing sources of income lays everything out for South Carolina constituents to see. “They can see exactly who pays their legislators, but it also encourages legislators to recuse themselves from things they shouldn’t be pushing in the first place, because they’re getting paid by somebody,” she said.

While lawmakers passed the independent investigations bill unanimously, 10 House members voted against the income disclosure requirement, with many Democrats saying it was an unnecessary law that was created to address Haley’s past run-in with the ethics committee.

The House Legislative Ethics Committee in 2012 found that she violated no rules after being accused of illegally lobbying, failing to disclose conflicts and exploiting her office while she was a state representative from Lexington County from 2005 to 2010. Haley was accused of lobbying for the Lexington Medical Center Foundation’s affiliated hospital while working as a fundraiser for the foundation as it sought to get state clearance to open a new heart-surgery center.

Haley in 2009 introduced a bill that would have required lawmakers to disclose sources of income. The legislation received no traction. She was elected governor in 2010.

She said work is not done on reform. “So every year you’re going to continue to hear me say, ‘What else can we do? How else can we make South Carolina better?’ We can never have too transparent of a state.”

Ethics reform proponents, including Martin, have said they hope to address so-called “dark money” and require third-party organizations that distribute campaign materials to disclose the origins of that money.

Haley said she and her staff will look at what they determine is important, which she said could include dark money and likely will address reforms to the Freedom of Information Act.

“In our agenda next year, there will be more ethics reform,” she said.

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.