Ethics bills get unanimous Senate approval

Senators gave final approval to two bills that aim to reform the state’s ethics laws.

COLUMBIA — Hoping to increase the public’s trust in lawmakers, South Carolina’s senators unanimously passed two bills that will reform the state’s ethics laws.

Following months of debate, the bills create an independent panel to investigate potential misdeeds by lawmakers and would require those same legislators to disclose who pays them — but not how much they receive.

“This represents a major step forward when the investigations, regardless of how those folks are assembled on a commission, will be conducted outside of this body,” Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said Wednesday. “And no longer would we investigate ourselves.”

The amended bills now return to the House, where members can either accept the Senate’s changes or choose to create a compromise committee where lawmakers from both chambers hash out details of the legislation.

Gov. Nikki Haley’s office praised the Senate for passing the bills, as she has championed ethics reform for several years.

“Today, four years in the making, was a huge step forward,” Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said. “Now it’s time for the Legislature to finish the job, bring this home and show South Carolina that all our elected officials truly work for them.”

The initial appointments of the eight-member ethics commission to cover both chambers of the Statehouse would take place April 1, with half serving three-year terms and the other half serving five-year terms. When considering an accusation of wrongdoing, six commission members must agree to move the investigation forward.

The bill, as approved by the Senate, would require the governor to appoint four members, two from his or her political party and two from the opposing party. The Senate majority and minority caucuses each would appoint one member, as would the House majority and minority caucuses. The General Assembly will confirm all of the members.

The bill requires that candidates be evaluated for ethical fitness, character, mental stability, experience and judicial temperament.

Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, amended the bill so that the General Assembly must revisit the effectiveness of the commission and reenact it after five years.

Senators took several short breaks during the debate Wednesday to hash out compromises among members.

“Those breaks that we had in the body was a lot of discussion between the different factions that had various contributions on the bill,” he said. “I think that whatever came down, we got as good a product as we’re going to get. It seems everybody walked away a little bit unhappy.”

Malloy said he worried about frivolous complaints being brought against lawmakers, but said the compromise of having a “supermajority” of commission members approve an investigation put him somewhat at ease.

The income-disclosure bill as approved will require everyone who files a statement of economic interest — from the governor down to locally appointed boards — to include sources of private income over $500, making potential conflicts of interest transparent.

Some lawmakers said the bill was not truly reform because it does not require elected officials to disclose how much money they make.

Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, said it makes a difference if someone is getting $1,000 or $100,000 from a company.

He offered an amendment that would require lawmakers to disclose a range of how much money they received, but withdrew it with the hope of tackling it next year.

“I understand that sometimes you don’t get all you want, but what I don’t want to do is jeopardize this bill at this hour,” Grooms said. “This is something that will be looked at with a fresh set of eyes in January.”

Martin said he knows that the bills are not perfect and are, instead, building blocks for lawmakers to use to continue to improve upon, possibly as soon as next year.

For at least the last four years, legislators and supporters seeking ethics reform have fought to implement changes addressing independent investigations, disclosure of private sources of income and reporting of funds spent by outside groups on campaign materials — so-called “dark money.”

Lawmakers have yet to take up the dark-money issue, but Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said he will continue to push for those disclosures.

“I want to push for dark money and I’m not interested in waiting until January,” Leatherman said. “I have no intention of backing off.”

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.