Ethics reform proponents hope to overcome Senate roadblock

The South Carolina Statehouse

COLUMBIA — When the hours started to tick by during last week’s six-hour debate over ethics reform in the South Carolina Senate, lawmakers started to push each other on the issue in blunt terms.

Then, Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, rose to ask a question. The Senate pro-tempore doesn’t always take part in lengthy exchanges, but when he does, everyone listens.

“Can you tell me what, if anything, is wrong with our current ethics law?” Leatherman asked his colleagues.

His question reflects the prevailing sentiment in the Senate, and those pushing ethics reform worry that attitude will stall any progress.

The key issue at stake is whether lawmakers will reform how they police themselves. Without progress on that front, they say, reforming the state’s ethics laws in the wake of the guilty plea and resignation of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell will be considered a disappointment.

Ethics reform proponents, including Gov. Nikki Haley, House Speaker Jay Lucas and Judiciary Chairman Sen. Larry Martin, see a golden opportunity for change in the wake of Harrell’s ethics woes — and they are seeking to change minds and reverse course after a bitter fight in the Senate has stalled progress. But they’ll have to forge a compromise with senators who see deep flaws in Martin’s original ethics legislation and some who don’t want to address the issue at all.

Martin, R-Pickens, introduced a bill before the session began to reform the system of House and Senate members solely policing themselves. While his proposal has its detractors, reformists say that a committee half appointed by the Legislature and half by the governor to handle ethics investigations is a step in the right direction. Under the proposal, the House and Senate ethics committees would still punish members. The bill also required lawmakers to disclose their personal sources of income and outside advocacy groups that spend money in campaigns to disclose their donors, called independent expenditures.

Soon after Leatherman made his remarks during the Senate debate, Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Conway, successfully pushed an amendment that set up an alternative investigative panel that involved placing four legislators in charge of policing members.

Martin and others balked at placing House and Senate members on a so-called “independent” investigative panel and mustered the votes to kill both Rankin’s amendment and the bill as a whole.

It’s the S.C. House across the hall, senators say, that has shown it can’t police itself. In Harrell’s case, the S.C. Policy Council, an advocacy group, had to push for an investigation for years, and the House Ethics Committee never took action. Proponents of reform say it proved that legislators policing other legislators doesn’t work.

A new independent panel to investigate lawmakers for campaign finance violations and other ethics problems is considered the linchpin to restoring trust in government.

Gov. Haley said in an interview that she plans to use the bully pulpit to let voters know who stands for meaningful reform and who does not. Haley confirmed she held a closed-door meeting with some Republican senators last week who voted for Rankin’s amendment and told them the same.

“It’s arrogance at its worst,” Haley said of senators who failed to endorse an independent investigation. “There’s going to be an opportunity to reverse what happened. As that comes forward, I’d like to see them reverse course. They have the opportunity now to discuss what this vote was. If they fix it, they will get total praise. If they don’t fix it, we’re going to let everybody know they didn’t fix it.”

Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, one of the senators in the meeting, said he voted for Rankin’s version because it included language that he believed could have led to voter registration by party. He also said he wouldn’t vote for Martin’s bill because of the independent expenditures issue. Bright said those groups should not be required to disclose their donors because it violates their free speech rights.

“We can’t take away free speech in order to cut a deal to get enough votes,” Bright said of the bill. Martin said he has no plans to take that provision out.

He also said Martin’s original bill doesn’t provide for independent oversight because there would be some General Assembly appointees on the investigative committee. Martin has said those appointees would be barred by law from speaking about investigations to members of the Legislature, preserving its independence.

Bright disagrees. “They think this is going to be totally independent oversight but it’s not,” Bright said. “There’s a rush to have a press conference and declare victory, and I think that’s bad government.”

Many senators view the Senate Ethics Committee in a positive light and the guilty plea of former Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, as an example of how the system worked. Ford pleaded guilty to raiding his campaign account for personal expenses last month.

But Lynn Teague, who has worked on ethics for the good government advocacy group League of Women Voters, said rumors persisted for years about Ford’s activity before anyone took action.

Senators shouldn’t pretend that political winds and who is in leadership doesn’t affect who gets prosecuted, she said. “There were reports of problems long pre-dating (senators) actually taking any action,” Teague said of the Ford case.

The House has sought to accomplish ethics reform in smaller bites, taking up 20-some ethics-related bills.

Speaker Lucas said he agrees that the House and Senate should work toward finding a compromise on a panel that can investigate lawmakers independently. “Its such an inaccuracy that you can call this a House problem,” he said. “I don’t think the opportunity to build the public trust belongs to any particular body. It brings back the confidence from the citizens of the state.”

He said he plans to push for compromise. “We want to get ethics done,” he said.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.