Back stronger ethics bill


The S.C. House took a decisive step Wednesday toward clearing up and strengthening the laws designed to ensure that the state's elected officials conduct their jobs ethically.

The bill has substance, and its approval by a vote of 110-0 is encouraging.

Members worked hard to come to the final product, but an even harder task is ahead. The House and Senate bills, which are miles apart, will now go to conference committee. Senators should welcome the House bill's strengths and support it. Doing less would squander a fine opportunity and would signal to the citizens of South Carolina that the Senate is averse to making changes that would help restore public trust in their elected representatives. Indeed, critics say the Senate bill, as it is written now, would weaken the ethics laws instead of strengthening them, by enabling legislators to vote on bills for which they have a well-established conflict of interest.

Unfortunately, the most significant difference between the House and Senate bills might be the most difficult to resolve - whether the two bodies should continue to investigate their own members accused of ethics violations. The Senate says things are just fine as they are.

But they aren't.

Even if members think they are able to be objective while they investigate their colleagues, the public isn't buying such a notion.

Further, last week's decision of Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning to send complaints against Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell to the House Ethics Committee instead of the state grand jury casts things in a new light.

Senators who oppose an independent investigative body have defended the current process by saying people who are unhappy with it can always go to the attorney general. Apparently it's not so easy as that.

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, who will serve on the conference committee, was in charge of a Senate committee that, prior to the session, designed its own ethics reform bill - which included independent oversight. He should take up the cudgels on its behalf when conferees meet.

Stripping the bill of that critical element would be a grave mistake. The people need something more reliable than the fox guarding the henhouse.

And if the bill is derailed over that issue, South Carolinians should wonder if the Legislature is really serious about ethics reform.

It is disappointing that the bill does not call for independent adjudication of complaints, as did a blue ribbon committee appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley last year. Indeed, the recommendations of that committee - which included two former attorneys general - are superior to anything the Legislature has yet to come up with.

But at least the adjudication process would happen in public under the House bill, so that people can see for themselves whether the committee rules appropriately.

Other improvements in the House bill require that elected officials disclose their private income and clear up unclear language regarding financial disclosures by independent political action committees (PACs).

If there is part of the House bill that could be stripped without harming its integrity, it would be a provision introduced by Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, changing the way S.C. Ethics Commission members are chosen. They are presently selected by the governor with the advice and consent of the Legislature.

Change that would serve only to weaken unnecessarily the authority of the state's chief executive.

South Carolina's ethics laws have not undergone a major reform since 1991, when Operation Lost Trust implicated 18 members of the General Assembly and major executive officials in a bribery scandal.

The House of Representatives has presented a bill that would deal with some existing weaknesses in the law.

It deserves the Senate's strong support.