The S.C. Statehouse

The S.C. Statehouse. File

COLUMBIA — While scandals have caused the S.C. Legislature to reform the way it handles ethics violations, political experts say the revamped State Ethics Commission will be far from independent of lawmaker influence.

But those same experts give South Carolina credit for taking a step — however small — toward having its suspect lawmakers investigated by a separate entity when accused of wrongdoing, something Republicans in the U.S. House in Washington toyed with getting rid of.

South Carolina political scientists said Congress' attempt Monday to rid itself of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics was part of the natural ebb and flow of policing ethics complaints. The body was created in 2008 after several bribery and corruption scandals sent members of Congress to prison.

After initially voting to get rid of the nonpartisan office and placing its duties under the House Ethics Committee, congressmen reversed course Tuesday and voted to let the body continue to lead investigations into wrongdoing.

"That is the way of things," Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said. "After a scandal, there's a crackdown and then, after some time, there’s a lessening of restrictions."

At the state level, South Carolina lawmakers voted last year to create an eight-member Ethics Commission that will be appointed by April 1. While outside groups applauded the move in the wake of scandals here, others cautioned there is still room for politics to creep in.  

"The ethics changes in South Carolina are definitely a positive step, but they do not go nearly as far as the strongest advocates for ethics oversight had hoped," Huffmon said. "They do not create a truly independent oversight entity. And it still leaves the Legislature somewhat policing itself."

Four members of the commission will be appointed by the governor, 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 eight members.

Some say the effect is little more than a reshuffling of chairs.

"All we’ve done is transfer (investigative) responsibility from a committee to a different group," University of South Carolina political science professor Kirk Randazzo said. "But the end result is going to be the same. The commission members depend on the Legislature for that job."

The changes in South Carolina create the Ethics Commission, which will police both chambers of the Statehouse and all candidates. When considering an accusation of wrongdoing, six of the eight commission members must agree to move the investigation forward to the House or Senate ethics committee.

The legislative committees have the final say on making an investigation public.

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College of Charleston political science director Gibbs Knotts said it becomes a question of whether lawmakers — at the state or federal level — really are willing to let an outside body police their members when accused of wrongdoing.

"Members of the (S.C.) Legislature like to be judge, jury and prosecution when it comes to (their colleagues)," he said. "I come down on the side of liking to see an outside group."

Despite U.S. House members backtracking on Tuesday, Randazzo said he believes the reversal was more about the timing and less about wanting to keep the Office of Congressional Ethics intact.

"It appears they just didn't want to be seen as this being the first thing that Congress does at the beginning of the term," Randazao said. "H.R. 1 is a signature bill that sets the tone for that particular Congress."

Randazzo also pointed to what he says is House Speaker Paul Ryan's refusal to acknowledge the move was a mistake.

"It would be one thing if the Republican house leadership came out and said, 'You know what? You're right. We didn’t think about this. This is a bad move,'" Randazzo said. "To essentially pretend that it didn’t happen very much sends the signal that this is what they wanted to do, but they didn’t expect the backlash. I think there is potential that it will rear its head again."

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

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