Senate’s sorry ethics dodge

The Senate's inability to reach agreement on an ethics reform bill was the major failure of the legislative session. And there were many.

State senators who killed the ethics reform bill on Wednesday said the recent case involving Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, demonstrated that the Senate can take care of its own ethics problems. That’s like saying that if one individual patient survives a deadly disease we don’t need a vaccine for it.

The Senate’s inability to reach agreement on an ethics reform bill was the major failure of the legislative session. And there were many.

The governor’s Commission on Ethics Reform presented the Legislature with solid recommendations to improve state ethics laws in January. And the House managed to pass an ethics bill, though at the last minute. But despite the efforts of reform advocates like Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, Senate opponents managed to delay the bill until the session came to a disappointing end.

The reform commission — co-chaired by two former state attorneys general — offered a comprehensive cure for the shortcomings in South Carolina’s ethics laws.

It would have increased the requirements of income disclosure, limited super PAC activity and expanded the definition of conflict of interest. And it would have required the independent investigation of ethics complaints.

The commission strongly recommended that legislative ethics complaints be judged by an independent panel, replacing the legislative ethics committees, which allow representatives and senators to be judged by their own colleagues.

Doing so would have stopped the practice commonly described as the fox guarding the henhouse. And it would have given legislators the same standing as other elected officials in the state. It’s only fair.

Comments from Mr. Ford’s colleagues following his resignation show the personal conflicts inherent in having legislators judge their own.

For example, Ethics Committee Chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry, praised Mr. Ford for stepping down, saying that it “certainly lifted a heavy burden off of me individually.”

Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, sadly cited the look in Sen. Ford’s eyes when he signed his resignation letter. “I don’t need any more transparency than that.”

Incredibly, Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, criticized Gov. Nikki Haley for suggesting that Mr. Ford’s ethical problems were an example of why reform is needed.

Sen. Jackson, a member of the Ethics Committee, described her comments as “insensitive” and said she would be to blame if the ethics bill failed to advance.

Sen. Ford was cited for using campaign contributions for car loans, personal health care, and to buy items from adult stores. He also was cited for failing to report numerous donations and personal loans, and for altering copies of financial documents.

The range of violations indicates a loose approach to ethics that tougher rules might have prevented at the outset. Of course, those violations offer ample reason for stronger ethics rules.

The independent adjudication of legislators is essential to those rules, and was not adequately addressed in either House or Senate bill. It should be one of the first points of discussion when the Senate again takes up the ethics bill when it returns in January.

The debacle accompanying the end of the Senate’s regular session shouldn’t mean that ethics reform is dead.

The Legislature has a duty to put meaningful, comprehensive ethics rules at the top of its agenda next year.