Advocacy groups call out senators on stalling ethics reform

The South Carolina Statehouse.

COLUMBIA — Advocates for ethics reform claimed Tuesday that residents who report suspected wrongdoing by lawmakers can face obstacles and intimidation, and that senators who think only the S.C. House has a problem are in denial.

Three government watchdog groups — the S.C. Policy Council, Campaign for Liberty and S.C. Common Cause — held a joint news conference at the Statehouse in response to the rift that has developed between the House and Senate that threatens to weaken or derail ethics reform.

As an example of the difficulties tipsters face, Policy Council head Ashley Landess cited a letter asking the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate whether it was proper for a senator to bill gasoline charges to his campaign fund.

Landess said the letter writer, whose name wasn’t revealed, was concerned that the charge was a personal, rather than a campaign expense, but the response they received from Ethics Committee Chairman Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Conway, illustrated why lawmakers are incapable of policing themselves.

Rankin wrote back to the letter writer that they needed to file a sworn, formal complaint verified by a notary public. He also wrote that they may have violated a Senate rule requiring that accusations be kept confidential until a finding of probable cause is made and could be prosecuted.

“If the Senate Ethics Committee finds that a person has violated the provisions of this item, it must report the findings to the attorney general,” Rankin wrote.

“Essentially the senator is telling this citizen ... you could be prosecuted simply for raising this,” Landess said. “I don’t think the House or the Senate does a particularly good job of policing.”

Rankin did not immediately return a call for comment.

Going into the current legislative session, Gov. Nikki Haley and House Speaker Rep. Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said ethics reform would be their top priority. Both said lawmakers needed to restore the public’s trust in government after former House Speaker Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty to misusing campaign funds and resigned from the Legislature in October.

The House has passed a series of bills on ethics reform aimed at establishing an independent state panel to investigate possible violations by lawmakers. But the effort stalled in the Senate last week when senators balked at submitting to an independent investigation.

Pointing to how senators dealt with former Sen. Robert Ford, who recently was indicted for misusing campaign funds, senators questioned the need for changing the current system under which ethics allegations are investigated by their colleagues in the House and Senate.

Talbert Black, who leads the tea party-aligned Campaign for Liberty, said his group also is concerned about ethics reform proposals in the House and Senate that force his and other advocacy groups that are not involved in candidates’ campaigns to disclose their donors.

Black said donors could be subjected to “intimidation” and “retribution” for taking a stand on issues.

However, Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said those groups should not be subject to the requirement and he plans to offer an amendment to ensure that. It would only apply to groups involved in advocating for or against a candidate during an election.

“(Government) has the ability to take money from one person’s pocket and take it to another person’s pocket,” Davis said. “So if you want to enter the arena as an individual and spend money and buy access ... I want to know who that individual is.”

The groups also urged lawmakers to pass ethics reform with strong income disclosure requirements.

John Crangle, director of S.C. Common Cause, said he remains hopeful that ethics reform can be accomplished this year. “As long as you have legislators investigating legislators, you’re going to have a conflict of interest,” Crangle said.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.