S.C. Senate should move real ethics reform forward

The South Carolina Statehouse. (Grace Beahm/File)

The time has come for substantial ethics reform in our state. However, reform is in serious trouble in the South Carolina Senate.

The central issue for most opponents is independent investigation of complaints against members of the General Assembly. Although there is substantial evidence that the current system does not work as it should, some senators have dug in their heels to reject real solutions.

Things began well when Sen. Larry Martin filed a sound comprehensive ethics bill, S.1, at the beginning of this legislative session. In the 2013 and 2014 sessions, and in this one, South Carolinians owe much to Sen. Martin for his principled leadership on this issue. However, an amendment by Sen. Luke Rankin on the Senate floor replaced the independent investigation component in that bill with an internal General Assembly committee consisting of legislators with a few members of the public added as window dressing. Twenty-five senators including Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman and the members of the Democratic caucus voted for this amendment that weakens the independent investigatory body.

Senate supporters of real reform refused to accept this watered down provision and ultimately voted against S.1. The bill failed to pass, and hangs on by the slender thread of a motion to reconsider. In-house legislative committees simply are not suited to investigation of most violations of the law. It is not always obvious in the beginning where investigation of a complaint will lead. Sometimes the initial complaint is only the tip of the iceberg, the most visible sign of a pattern of even more serious corruption.

Yes, a legislative staff attorney can check campaign accounts for straightforward civil violations. However, competent professional investigation under independent oversight can reveal hidden depths and complexity, and criminal violations, that would never appear in the kind of superficial review that can be handled in-house by legislative committees.

In addition, the S.C. Supreme Court made it very clear in its Bobby Harrell case ruling last summer that it is beyond the constitutional authority of legislative committees to serve as decision-making gatekeepers for criminal cases. The constitutional role of the legislative committees is limited to civil cases.

The foundation for a sound solution is found in Sen. Martin’s original S.1 and also in bills reforming investigation and enforcement that came out of Rep. Tommy Pope’s House subcommittee.

An independent Ethics Commission, structured to reflect legislative input into appointments, can conduct professional investigations and direct cases either to the attorney general for investigation as a criminal violation or to legislative committees as civil violations. Then, those legislators who believe that there have been deficiencies in the performance of the Commission should make sure that problems are corrected.

It is time for true ethics reform.

The original version of S.1 and related bills passed by the House would provide a sound foundation for the General Assembly to move forward with the confidence of the people of our state. It would also be fair to the many men and women of integrity who serve our state in the General Assembly, who deserve not to be under the shadow of undeserved suspicion bred by secretive internal committees. With a trustworthy system of investigation, blame could be reserved for the few who are actual wrongdoers.

Constituents must tell their senators that it is time to move forward with real reform, and that no substitutes will be accepted.

Susan Richards of Charleston is co-president of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina. Lynn S. Teague of Columbia is vice-president for issues and action for the League.