Veteran lawmaker calls on senators to pass bill creating independent panel for Statehouse investigations

Senator Larry Martin speaks in the Senate at the South Carolina Statehouse Tuesday June 3, 2014. Grace Beahm/Staff

Amid an ongoing controversy between the S.C. attorney general and a special prosecutor assigned to a Statehouse corruption probe, a veteran legislator urged senators to pass a bill that creates a third-party panel to investigate lawmakers accused of wrongdoing.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, took the Senate floor Tuesday and said it was time for his fellow lawmakers to pass a bill that would move ethics oversight to an outside body, while also requiring that elected officials disclose private income sources.

Currently, lawmakers police themselves through ethics committees in the House and Senate.

Martin’s Senate floor plea comes a day after Gov. Nikki Haley used social media to push lawmakers to approve the bill as is.

“I’m optimistic we’re going to get a bill (approved) tomorrow,” Martin said. “This, independent investigations and third-party income disclosure, are the two most pressing parts of it right now.”

Some lawmakers are also pushing to include disclosure of funds spent by outside groups on campaign materials — commonly referred to as “dark money” — to make the reform effort more comprehensive. But Martin said he fears adding that component to the pending bill would cause it to fail.

“I know there’s concern about third-party campaign expenses, but this bill is not the vehicle to do that with — it will not pass,” Martin said.

With the bill already on the Senate floor, state Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, said the best way to ensure it passes is to keep the amendments to a minimum.

“You need to keep a bill simple to get it done,” he said.

The Statehouse has been hit with at least three ethics investigations in recent times. In late 2014, former House Speaker Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty to improperly using campaign money to reimburse himself for personal expenses, including trips he took in his private plane. The Charleston Republican was placed on three years probation and forced to resign from the Legislature.

Another spending scandal took down Democratic Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston. He is seeking to regain his seat this year.

In a third investigation that stemmed out of Harrell’s violations, Attorney General Alan Wilson is now in a legal fight with his special prosecutor in the probe, 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, whom he removed last week after Pascoe attempted to initiate a grand jury investigation. Pascoe has asked the S.C. Supreme Court to determine if Wilson has that ability.

Harrell and Ford were far from alone, however, in finding creative ways to spend campaign cash. “Capitol Gains,” a series by The Post and Courier and the Center for Public Integrity, this fall exposed that candidates in South Carolina have what amounts to a personal ATM that dispensed nearly $100 million since 2009.