S.C. House passes ethics reform bill

S.C. Statehouse

COLUMBIA - The S.C. House easily passed its first attempt at sweeping ethics reform in decades, establishing a new body to investigate members of all three branches of government and requiring all lawmakers to disclose their sources of income.

Questions on ethics have consumed the Statehouse as Gov. Nikki Haley and other leaders have pushed for comprehensive reform, arguing the current system doesn't instill public confidence.

The bill passed 110-0 and requires another House vote to officially move forward. The bill was also changed to keep legislators off of a new committee that would investigate ethics-related allegations against members of the General Assembly. Instead, the General Assembly would appoint four members, with the judiciary and executive branches also appointing four members each. That body would investigate ethics-related allegations in all three branches, but disciplinary decisions would be left up to the current bodies that decide those matters. The bill places restrictions on appointing campaign donors and family members to that committee.

An amendment pushed by Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, also reconstitutes the State Ethics Commission, which oversees executive branch officials, including the governor. As it stands, all nine members of the commission are appointed by the governor, but the House bill would spread appointees among other statewide offices.

"When that same person appoints every member of that body, it makes people wonder if there's ... influence there," Stavrinakis said.

Haley's spokesman, Doug Mayer, said the governor's top two reform priorities - the need for income disclosure and independent investigations - were addressed in the House bill.

"While the House bill still contains some problems that we hope will be addressed in conference, this represents real progress for the people of South Carolina," Mayer said. "Now it's time for the Senate to join the House in making sure legislators are no longer investigating themselves or keeping their income secret."

Critics had hoped lawmakers would ban altogether the use of campaign funds for office-related expenses, a source of much controversy.

The House proposal, in fact, appears to broaden legislators' ability to spend campaign funds for office-related expenses. It adds language that would allow elected officials to use the dollars to pay for family members' expenses while on official business, a common practice but one not specifically spelled out in the law.

The bill also gives lawmakers 30 days to "cure" some unintentional mistakes made on campaign finance reports. As it stands, any potential infraction on campaign finance reports - mistake or no - is a potential criminal misdemeanor. The House also created a committee of attorneys - required to have criminal trial experience - to review which violations of the Ethics Act should result in civil penalties and which should have criminal penalties.

"This bill is the result of several years of strong bipartisan work on this issue," said House Judiciary Chairman Greg Delleney, R-Chester, in a statement. "As technology changes, and as the demands of public service change, it is critical that we make these reforms."

Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, said the House addressed the big issues. "We sent (the Senate) a pretty solid bill," he said.

The Senate version of the bill does not contain an independent investigative body. Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, said the most practical solution would likely be to strip the independent committee from the House bill and move ahead with other reforms. He has advocated for such an independent investigative body - without the House measure's oversight of the judicial branch - but the Senate rejected the proposal.

An ethics bill without an independent panel to oversee ethics investigations would be a significant defeat for Haley and others who have advocated for the need of an independent body to investigate lawmakers.

Still, other reforms are important, lawmakers said. "If you take that part out, there's still a lot of good stuff," Campsen said.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.