Probe ethics independently

The prospects for ethics reform advanced last week as House Republicans and Democrats named special committees to develop proposals toward that end. It should soon be apparent to those committees that legislative ethics needs to be policed independently of the Legislature.

That means giving the state Ethics Commission the authority to look into legislative ethics, rather than referring those matters to the respective ethics committees of the House and Senate.

The state Ethics Commission already handles complaints about other elected officials throughout the state. For example, it looked into questions raised about former Gov. Mark Sanford’s use of state aircraft in 2010, and fined him accordingly for violations.

If it’s OK for the commission to handle ethics complaints about the state’s chief executive, it should be OK for the citizens panel to perform the same duty for legislators.

Doing so would assure that those complaints are resolved with a degree of confidence and accountability that won’t be possible while legislators judge their own.

The latest issue involves questions raised by this newspaper about House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s use of campaign funds. Speaker Harrell has provided general information about those expenditures, around $300,000, to the state Ethics Commission, as required by law. But he has declined to release records specifically detailing how the money was spent, saying he has met the legal requirement.

That speaks to a shortcoming in the law that those legislators who are undertaking a review of ethics laws should address. At present, the House Ethics Committee has the authority to examine those records if it chooses to investigate Mr. Harrell’s expenditures and reimbursements to his personal account.

The issue has been clouded by a report from the speaker’s office that some of the records were lost during a move of Mr. Harrell’s insurance office in Charleston. Mr. Harrell has repaid $23,000 to his campaign fund as a consequence. Meanwhile, he did allow an Associated Press reporter to see receipts for those records, but didn’t let her make copies of them.

Mr. Harrell weighed in on behalf of stronger ethics rules last week, saying, “These reforms and added transparency efforts will help ensure ... that our ethics laws are being followed and enforced, therefore making it much more difficult for members to be unfairly attacked for actually complying with the law.”

However, questions involving legislative spending, including dollars that have been contributed to campaign war chests, are legitimate matters of public interest. They deserve to be explored by watchdogs, including the media, and, when appropriate, by ethics officials.

And that demands stronger rules for full and detailed public disclosure.

An overhaul of state ethics laws should be at the top of the Legislature’s agenda next session. When those laws are rewritten, the Legislature should disband its own ethics committees, and turn the responsibility over to the state Ethics Commission, while providing for public review of ethics complaints.

Then legislators should ensure that the commission is given the resources to do the job. It has seen its funding and staff cut during the recent economic downturn.

Failure to enact a comprehensive reform of ethics laws will diminish public confidence in the Legislature’s commitment to the highest level of accountability, and would naturally raise the question: What do they have to hide?

Meanwhile, Mr. Harrell still has the opportunity to resolve questions about his use of campaign funds with a full and detailed public disclosure of his expenditures.