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More Lawmakers Supporting Independence for Legislative Ethics

A third bill has been introduced to put the kibosh on ethics self-policing in the S.C. General Assembly, and the effort is now bipartisan.

Rep. Boyd Brown, D-Fairfield, introduced the latest bill on Jan. 18.

The legislation, H. 4634, would place members of the Legislature under the jurisdiction of the state Ethics Commission. The bill also would abolish the House and Senate ethics committees.

Brown’s proposal is the third measure pending to reform legislative ethics by bringing more transparency, accountability and independence to the enforcement process.

Efforts to reach Brown on Wednesday and Thursday on his cell phone and at the State House while the Legislature was in session were unsuccessful.

Brown’s bill has attracted three co-sponsors, including Rep. James E. Smith, D-Richland.

“It’s very important,” Smith says of ending the longstanding practice of legislators watching over each other for ethics violations. “I think it’s just generally a concern.”

Smith, who says he sponsored his own bill to that effect several years ago, serves as first vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Brown is a member of the committee and his bill is pending before the panel, as is a similar proposal by Rep. Kevin Ryan, R-Georgetown.

Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, chairs the committee.

Although Brown and Ryan represent different sides of the aisle, the legislators are alike in that they are two of the youngest members of the General Assembly – ages 25 and 23, respectively.

“It’s just a commonsense issue,” Ryan, who is co-sponsoring Brown’s proposal, told The Nerve for a previous story on his bill, H. 4421. “We just should not be policing ourselves.”

More and more lawmakers are expressing that viewpoint, even against formidable institutional and cultural obstacles in the Legislature.

Operating independently of one another, the House and Senate ethics committees have long conducted their business in the shadows of the state Capitol. Not only do the committees serve to let lawmakers police themselves, but ever since the proverbial war of the roses the panels traditionally have not revealed whether they took any action against a legislator.

Most everything was kept in-house.

Even if one of the committees did fine or censure a lawmaker or what have you, says Republican Rep. Rick Quinn of Lexington County, “You never really know about it.”

Holes in that veil of secrecy have begun to appear, however.

In 2011, the Senate changed its operating rules so that matters before the chamber’s Ethics Committee become public if probable cause of a violation is found.

Harrison is sponsoring a proposal to do the same on the House side; and that measure, H. 3445, is pending in the chamber’s Rules Committee.

But even with revised rules for openness, the Legislature remains a circular, self-enforcing star chamber on ethics.

All other state elected officials as well as local-level representatives of the people in South Carolina?

They are under the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission. A state agency, the commission features an administrative staff that investigates allegations of wrongdoing and a nine-member board that acts as a jury in the agency’s cases. The governor appoints the board members.

And therein lies the problem with Ethics Commission oversight of legislators, according to those who oppose it.

These opponents, such as Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, argue separation of powers, pointing to Article 3, Section 12 of the S.C. Constitution. The passage says in part that each house of the Legislature shall “punish its members for disorderly behavior.”

The opponents interpret that to include ethics issues.

So then, by their argument, the executive branch of state government has its ethics enforcer in the commission; the judicial branch likewise has its own ethics disciplinarian in the S.C. Supreme Court; and the legislative branch does too in the House and Senate committees.

A growing number of lawmakers are rejecting that explanation, though.

“It’s not a basis to say no to that proposition,” Smith says of commission oversight of lawmakers. He proffers dual commission-legislative jurisdiction as one alternative.

Advocating reform that directly addresses the separation-of-powers issue, Republican Sen. Mike Rose of Dorchester County is sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment to give the Legislature explicit authority to delegate its ethics enforcement to an outside entity.

Rose’s measure, S. 324, was the first proposal this legislative session aimed at bringing independence to ethics in the General Assembly.

Harrison, the House Judiciary chairman, has said he doesn’t have any objections to the legislation pending before the committee that would put lawmakers under the dominion of the Ethics Commission. But at the same time he says it could run into separation-of-powers problems.

Quinn says the legislative self-enforcement issue needs to be addressed but he agrees with Harrison on that latter point. “There are some constitutional concerns that I think are legitimate, in terms of separation of powers,” he says.

Still, Quinn hastens to add, “I think we need to do something about it. People have to feel like the process of government is above board and fair to all.”

Quinn says he is working up a bill that would reform legislative ethics within constitutional confines.

The bill calls for the Ethics Commission to investigate claims involving lawmakers; for retired judges to preside over the cases; and for the Legislature to vote on whether to accept the findings, Quinn says. “It will all be totally transparent.”

Harrison’s Judiciary Committee likely would have first crack at such a bill. And, like Brown, Quinn serves on the committee.

Quinn says he hopes to introduce his bill next week. “I’m going to do everything I can to get a debate on the issue,” he says.

That could result in two members of Harrison’s committee – one from each party – having bills pending before it to do away with the fox-guarding-the-henhouse system of legislative ethics.

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

Accountability Ethics General Assembly Transparency

Rep. Rick Quinn Rep. Boyd Brown S.C. General Assembly Sen. Mike Rose Rep. Jim Harrison Rep. James Smith S.C. Ethics Commission Rep. Kevin Ryan