Pass legislative ethics bill

The South Carolina Statehouse. (Grace Beahm/File)

If the Legislature is to be taken serious on ethics reform, it first will have to pass a bill that includes a provision for independent review of ethics complaints against legislators.

Unfortunately, there are still legislators who contend that the House and Senate need to “take care of our own,” as Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley, explained to our reporter on the issue this session. That viewpoint is the biggest impediment to ethics reform.

It ignores that all other elected state officials in South Carolina are required to submit to an independent investigation and judgment of ethics complaints by the state Ethics Commission.

Even under the reform legislation being considered this session, the House and Senate ethics committees would continue to sit in judgment of their colleagues.

That’s because of a constitutional provision that gives legislators the authority to judge the conduct of their colleagues.

But independent investigation would not interfere with that provision. There really is no good reason to stick to an untenable system — one which offers little in the way of public confidence.

Gov. Nikki Haley continues to push for ethics reform, and so do the co-chairmen of her ad hoc ethics reform commission. That commission, which was chaired by former attorneys general Travis Medlock and Henry McMaster, came up with a solid plan in 2014 for ethics reform. And, notably, major provisions included independent investigation and independent judgment of legislative ethics cases.

That would remove some the collegial aspects of investigations that are now conducted by House and Senate ethics committees. Independent review, for example, would determine whether a complaint should go to the grand jury or to the respective legislative ethics committees.

Independent investigation is essential for any ethics reform bill to have credibility. The refusal, so far, by senators to allow independent review is one of the main reasons that lawmakers lack credibility on the ethics front. Having legislators continue to deal with ethics complaints about their colleagues will never be viewed as anything but “the fox guarding the henhouse.” And correctly so.

If legislators are really interested in finding out what their constituents think about legislative ethics reform, they have the option of putting a constitutional change on the ballot to eliminate the provision for intramural ethics review. Can anyone really doubt how the voters would decide that issue, given a chance?