Start with ethics reform

The South Carolina Statehouse. (Grace Beahm/File)

Ethics reform faltered in each of the last two years, but that was before former Rep. Bobby Harrell's case put the issue in sharp relief with a guilty plea and his resignation as speaker of the House.

Given that outcome, South Carolinians will be paying special attention this year to see if legislators are really interested in actually completing work on tougher ethics laws that will apply first and foremost to themselves.

As Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, told our reporter, Mr. Harrell's resignation has cast a cloud over the Statehouse that can only be removed through reform by the Legislature. "If we can't get it done this year, we'll never get it done."

In a meeting with state press representatives last Thursday, Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, outlined the recommendations of a bill filed in anticipation of this year's session, which begins today.

It would provide for independent investigation of ethics complaints, improved income disclosure, and would extend the Senate ban on legislative leadership PACs to the House.

Unfortunately, it would retain House and Senate Ethics Committees, though their hearings would be public and their scope would be limited by the independent investigation of ethics complaints. The investigatory process would determine which complaints are sufficiently serious to be handled by the attorney general or prosecutors. Those would include cases for which there is probable cause for criminal prosecution.

Meanwhile, a House ad hoc committee appointed by Speaker Jay Lucas is recommending a variety of improvements to ethics investigations, campaign finance, income disclosure and the Freedom of Information Act.

And if the Legislature comes up short on ideas, there is still the comprehensive reform proposal put forth by Gov. Nikki Haley's Commission on Ethics Reform in 2013. So far, nothing that the Legislature has yet considered matches that proposal for comprehensiveness and clarity.

Notably, it recommended that legislators be treated the same as every other elected official in the state on ethics issues. At present, legislators are the only elected officials who have their own ethics committees where members sit in judgment of their colleagues.

Mr. Harrell's long, drawn-out effort to have his case go to the House Ethics Committee rather than a grand jury should serve as an example of why a reform of that in-house process is essential.

After that effort failed, Mr. Harrell eventually pleaded guilty to misusing campaign funds, resigned his seat and agreed to answer any and all questions put to him by investigators about other ethics-related legislative matters.

So there may be more ethics issues to unfold this year. For example, questions were raised following last year's legislative session about reports of alleged vote-swapping for judgeships.

The General Assembly should put its best foot forward and move decisively early in the session on a stronger ethics law. Lawmakers should recognize that half-measures won't work.