Heed McMaster on ethics bill

The S.C. Senate should heed former Attorney General Henry McMaster (pictured) on the issue of ethics reform.

The House of Representatives was extraordinarily late in approving an ethics reform plan, and now the state Senate is faced with the daunting prospect of completing its work on the bill before the session ends.

As the Senate gets to work, it should heed the words of former Attorney General Henry McMaster:

“Ethics reform doesn’t take 10 years, or 20 years or 30 years. It can be done with a stroke of a pen, which means passing meaningful, comprehensive ethics legislation that says to this state, its citizens, the nation and the world who might want to do business in South Carolina, South Carolina government is not for sale.”

Mr. McMaster’s comments on the reform bill were made at the League of Women Voters of South Carolina’s recent convention. The League also has been an unrelenting advocate this year for meaningful ethics reform.

Such a bill, Mr. McMaster said, would demonstrate that “the elected officials are clean and honest, and if there is any doubt about it, look at the rules they have to comply with. There is no way in the world they can be dishonest or take bribes for self-interest; instead, they prioritize the interest of those that live here or want to do business here.”

Essential to that effort are independent investigation and adjudication of ethics complaints, full income disclosure for lawmakers, and a ban on so-called leadership political action committees (PACs).

The House bill falls short on one essential element. Instead of having legislators judged by the State Ethics Commission, it would create another special commission just for them. Half of its members would be legislators, and half would be non-legislators. But all would be picked by representatives and senators.

Mr. McMaster was co-chairman of the governor’s Commission on Ethics Reform, which prepared a solid proposal for the Legislature’s consideration early this year. The commission supported independent review of legislative ethics by the State Ethics Commission. So does the League. So does every other advocate for ethics reform.

Mayors Joe Riley and Stephen Benjamin add their voices to the reform chorus in a column on today’s Commentary page.

It’s only fair for legislators to face the same process as every other elected official who has been challenged on ethics matters.

And that includes the governor.

Otherwise, the Legislature will be continuing, in a different format, a process that is less stringent than for any other elected official in the state.

The League and the S.C. Policy Council report that the House bill also provides loopholes in income disclosure. Full income disclosure is needed to restrict conflicts of interest.

The full Senate could get the bill as early as today. It should consider how the proposal can be strengthened.

As Mr. McMaster said, “We can send this message now with current ethics legislation, if we do it the right way. If we do it the wrong way, we will suffer as other states have suffered with a reputation of a dishonest government.”

The Senate should send the right message.