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House Might Follow Senate on Ethics Rules

The S.C. House might follow the state Senate’s lead and change its operating rules to require that ethics cases involving House members be publicly disclosed if probable cause of a violation is found.

The potential House action also follows passage of a bill giving the State Ethics Commission comparable disclosure authority in its jurisdiction.

Now, Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, is sponsoring a resolution to bring the House into conformity with that same standard of divulgence by revising the chamber’s rules.

Harrison informed The Nerve yesterday that he planned to introduce his proposed rule change today.

Previously, Harrison told The Nerve he senses that his House colleagues will go along with it. "I mean, my gut feeling is the House would pass that rule change," he said.

Both precursors to Harrison’s resolution occurred last week when the Senate changed its rules and overrode a gubernatorial veto to approve the bill, which Harrison also sponsored. The House overrode the veto toward the end of the 2010 legislative session.

The Senate rule change and the possible House rule change will not end legislative self-policing of ethics matters, a system critics blast as tainted by a lack of objectivity.

Describing it as "outrageous and shameful," at least one state senator, Republican Mike Rose of Dorchester, is fighting to end that system.

Still, the legislative rule changes and the bill passing represent perhaps the most significant ethics reform in South Carolina since the landmark State Ethics Act became law some 20 years ago. That happened after a bribery scandal known as "Lost Trust" ensnared several members of the General Assembly.

But, as passed, the Ethics Act had its limits – foremost that is does not apply to members of the Legislature. Instead, lawmakers keep watch over themselves via separate House and Senate Ethics committees.

In addition, the law contained a restriction barring the Ethics Commission from releasing any information about an ethics case until it was closed, unless the defendant waived confidentiality.

The Ethics Commission has jurisdiction over the state’s nine constitutional officers, a select group of high-ranking appointed state employees and local elected officials. The commission consists of eight members appointed by the governor with the consent of the Legislature.

Harrison’s bill, H. 4542, amends the law to allow disclosure if the commission finds probable cause of an Ethics Act violation. The information subject to release includes "all investigations, inquiries, hearings, and accompanying documents," the bill says.

"We were supportive of the bill from last year," Ethics Commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood says. "The commission thought it went a long way in the pursuit of open government."

Hazelwood says the commission and its staff have not determined how to provide the disclosure because the legislation was vetoed last year. But she says the process probably will involve posting the information and documents online. "We’d have to do something to provide notice to the public."

The South Carolina Press Association crafted the bill and asked Harrison to sponsor it. The Nerve’s parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, is an associate member of the Press Association.

The veto of the bill came at the hands of former Gov. Mark Sanford, who objected to the fact that legislators were exempt from it.

"An interesting question is whether half a loaf is better than none, and he took the position that it wasn’t," Harrison said in an interview on the eve of the Senate’s actions last week.

This session, Rose is pushing for the whole loaf, but by different means. He is sponsoring a constitutional amendment, S. 324, to expand the Ethics Commission’s purview to include legislators.

Last session, as Harrison’s bill was winding its way through the State House sausage-making factory, it was amended so that it would apply to lawmakers as well.

However, Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, successfully fought to delete that expansion of the legislation.

McConnell, who often presides over the Senate, contended that the S.C. Constitution gives the House and Senate authority to prescribe their own operating procedures and a statute does not trump that power.

Rose begs to differ. "It all comes back to the same central point – hoarding power among the legislators," he says. "We don’t have co-equal branches of government."

Rose began working on a constitutional amendment to take legislative ethics enforcement out of lawmakers’ hands after visiting Texas in October.

On that trip, Rose says he learned that the Texas Constitution and the Palmetto State constitution are almost identical with respect to misconduct by legislators, but legislative ethics matters in Texas are handled by an independent agency.

The senator might be onto something.

Says Article 3 ("Legislative Department"), Section 11 of the Texas Constitution – "Rules of Procedure; Expulsion of Member": "Each House may determine the rules of its own proceedings, punish members for disorderly conduct, and, with the consent of two-thirds, expel a member, but not a second time for the same offense."

Says Article 3 ("Legislative Department"), Section 12 of the S.C. Constitution – "Officers; rules; punishment and expulsion of members": "Each house shall choose its own officers, determine its rules of procedure, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member, but not a second time for the same cause."

Says Rose, "So there’s nothing inherently magical about Senate McConnell’s interpretation [of the constitution]."

Rose also is sponsoring a bill, S. 306, to change the power to appoint the Ethics Commission’s eight members. Instead of all of them being appointed by the governor, the bill would have the governor appoint four and the Senate president pro tempore and the House speaker each appoint two.

Nevertheless, Rose’s ethics proposals might not see the light of day. Both the constitutional amendment and the bill have been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which McConnell chairs.

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.

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