Redouble ethics reform efforts

The South Carolina Statehouse. (Grace Beahm/File)

This is supposed to be the year of ethics reform, with the example of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell still fresh in the Legislature’s collective mind.

But don’t tell that to the state Senate, where a comprehensive ethics reform measure stalled after hours of debate on Wednesday

The bill, proposed by Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, would provide independent investigation of ethics complaints against senators.

It would clarify which complaints are minor enough to be considered by the Senate Ethics Committee, and which should go to the local solicitor or the state attorney general for criminal review. It would bolster income disclosure requirements to help identify potential conflicts of interest.

In short, the bill recognizes that the current system fails to provide the necessary accountability and oversight. It may not be a perfect plan, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, some senators want to stay right where they are.

Indeed, the message from Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, seemed to be that the Senate’s current ethics system works just fine:

“Can you tell me what, if anything is wrong with our current ethics law?” the senator asked.

Well, nothing, except that it doesn’t provide adequate oversight or accountability; fails to ensure the independent, objective investigation and adjudication of legislators charged with ethics violations; and largely leaves voters in the dark about possible conflicts of interest. And the current ethics law treats legislators differently than any other elected official in South Carolina. Other officials go before the State Ethics Commission, not panels comprised of their colleagues.

To suggest that the Senate doesn’t have a potential problem with ethics simply because Mr. Harrell was a member of the House avoids the issue. Both chambers have the same sort of in-house ethics system, and neither is adequate to the task.

If senators weren’t ready to endorse Sen. Martin’s bill last Wednesday, they also refused to approve a plan by Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Conway, to have legislators remain in charge of policing their members.

“I don’t regard it as a repudiation of ethics reform,” said John Crangle, executive director of the state chapter of Common Cause. “I think they will do something.”

Lynn Teague, who has worked on ethics issues for the state League of Women Voters, is also hopeful. “The House has done a lot of good work,” she said.

Ethics bills approved by the House eventually will make their way to the Senate for its consideration. That ensures that the Senate will get another chance at reform during the session.

There is also the issue of public trust to consider, as Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, observed just before the session began.

Mr. Harrell’s resignation after pleading guilty to misusing campaign funds cast a “cloud over the Statehouse,” he said.

That pall can only be removed by meaningful ethics reform.

“If we can’t get it done this year, we’ll never get it done,” Sen. Peeler said.

Reform advocates can’t let Mr. Peeler’s remark end up as the defining statement on ethics for this Legislature.