Reform hits roadblock as Senate kills ethics bill Main sticking point was lawmakers on investigative panels

The Senate on Wednesday rejected a bill aimed at strengthening South Carolina's ethics laws, dealing a blow to legislation Gov. Nikki Haley says is her top priority.

COLUMBIA — The S.C. Senate killed a measure Wednesday aimed at overhauling the law that governs legislators’ ethics, throwing into doubt whether anything would get done this year on a major priority for Gov. Nikki Haley and other top leaders.

Senators said the chamber’s failure to pass a bill on a 19 to 24 vote was a bitter pill, given that the fight comes in the wake of the guilty plea and resignation of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, to ethics-related charges.

The Senate’s action also sets up a clash regarding ethics bills already passed and on the way from the S.C. House.

The main issue that spiked the reform effort, led by Judiciary Chairman Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, was whether lawmakers should be involved in the process of investigating themselves. The majority of senators agreed with Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Conway, that Martin’s bill to set up an independent panel to investigate senators’ conduct solved a problem that didn’t exist.

Harrell pleaded guilty to ethics-related charges last year when a criminal investigation led by the attorney general turned up evidence that the longtime speaker had profited from his campaign account. But Harrell was never investigated by the House Ethics Committee, which critics have said is evidence enough that the system is broken.

Haley, a Republican who campaigned on the issue, took to Facebook to criticize lawmakers for failing to back reforms that would allow an independent group to investigate lawmakers’ conduct.

“When we allow legislators to investigate themselves, it is a slap in the face to every citizen in South Carolina,” Haley wrote. “Sen. Rankin put up an amendment that continues this practice, even as we have seen a Lt. Gov., Senator and House Speaker all indicted. I will veto any bill that does not include true independent investigations of elected officials.”

Haley was referring to the recent ethics scandals and resignations of former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, Sen. Robert Ford and Harrell.

Rankin, however, said his proposal was an improvement on the current system and blamed Martin and others for failing to compromise after weeks of debate and an extended six-hour session on Wednesday.

Rankin’s proposal set up a separate nine-member committee to investigate members of the House and Senate. The leaders of both parties in the House and Senate would appoint one member each; three would be appointed by the governor; and two by the attorney general. Local and statewide candidates would have still been overseen by the State Ethics Commission, which has members appointed by the governor.

Martin said that a separate investigative committee — that includes legislators — is hardly the spirit of reform, given people would question whether lawmakers could treat their colleagues impartially. Martin said he was “embarrassed” and “taken aback” that senators didn’t take the effort more seriously.

“This is worse than not changing anything,” Martin said of Rankin’s changes to his bill in an interview. “It’s a mirage.”

Rankin said Martin and his supporters should have accepted the compromise and that any blame for a stalled ethics reform effort should be placed onto them, he said.

Rankin, the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, said the Senate has ultimately done its job when it comes to policing itself, even if the House has not. “It’s hard to point to senators protecting senators,” he said.

He told his colleagues on the Senate floor: “There has never been a problem in this Senate, ever.”

Martin’s original bill also would have forced legislators to disclose their sources of personal income, and forced outside advocacy groups that spend money on campaigns to report their donors. As it stands, those groups are unregulated in South Carolina.

At one point in the lengthy, sprawling debate, the Senate’s leader rose to ask a few questions. Senate Pro-Tempore Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, asked what the point of the discussion was. “Can you tell me what, if anything, is wrong with our current ethics law?” Leatherman asked.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.