The S.C. House last week danced a conspicuous ethics two-step, in what one State House watchdog describes as exactly the kind of bull pucky that makes taxpayers cynical about politicians and government.
Simply put – it stinks, says the watchdog, Common Cause of South Carolina director John Crangle.
The resolution, H. 3445, was designed to change the chamber’s operating rules so that matters before its Ethics Committee become public if they involve probable cause of wrongdoing.
The House Ethics Committee and its counterpart, the Senate Ethics Committee, have a long history of being secretive about their activities.
Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, sponsored the reform measure to open things up on the House side.
But it then languished in the House Rules Committee for more than 15 months – the rest of 2011 and all of this year’s legislative session – until last week.
Unexpectedly and with little notice, the committee took up the proposal Tuesday, approved it with no amendments and sent it to the full House, which speedily passed it the same day. The House voted unanimously to implement the rules change, 98-0.
About 24 hours later, on Wednesday, the House Ethics Committee voted 5-1 to clear Gov. Nikki Haley of allegations that she violated ethics laws as a House member before she became the state’s chief executive.
The accusations stemmed from Haley’s work for Lexington Medical Center and the Wilbur Smith Associates engineering firm while she was in the House.
The case originated from a complaint filed against Haley by John Rainey, a longtime Republican fundraiser who was former Gov. Mark Sanford’s appointee to chair the state Board of Economic Advisors.
The House Ethics Committee voted to dismiss the allegations against Haley just minutes after determining that probable cause of a violation existed.
The panel’s successive votes finding probable cause in the case but then quickly tossing it out were public under the rules change the House had approved the day before.
“It’s already having some effect on the process, to say the least,” Harrison says.
Indeed, but the timing of the actions by the House and its Rules and Ethics committees was more than a little conspicuous to some observers.
“It was a bizarre test run of the new rule, and I think they basically crashed the plane,” Crangle says, describing the House’s actions as cynical and devious. “I think it was an incredibly bungled and unethical way of handling this issue.”
House Rules Committee Chairman Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, did not return phone messages left for him last week.
Even Harrison, who holds a leadership post in the House, was struck by the timing of the Rules Committee and the full House passing his rules change after the committee had sat on it for well over a year.
Harrison chairs the House Judiciary Committee; he does not serve on the chamber’s Ethics or Rules committees. “It’s interesting timing, but honestly I haven’t talked to the individual members of the Rules Committee (about it),” Harrison says.
Like the Senate Ethics Committee, the House ethics panel has long been secretive about its activities.
“The ethics process, we haven’t had a lot of transparency,” Harrison says.
And, unlike the state’s nine constitutional officers and locally elected representatives of the people in South Carolina, who are under the jurisdiction of the State Ethics Commission, House and Senate members police themselves through their separate ethics committees.
Those panels previously operated with virtually no obligation to disclose what, if anything, they do – and rarely released information to the public.
Crangle, who has walked a good-government beat at the State House for 20-plus years, says he can recall the legislative ethics committees making a public disclosure only once or twice.
But at the outset of the 2011 legislative session, the Senate changed its operating rules to make ethics cases involving senators public if the matters point to probable cause of wrongdoing.
Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York and chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, sponsored that good-government reform.
Harrison subsequently introduced his proposal to do the same on the House side.
“I’m just glad they finally got it passed,” says Harrison, who is retiring from the House this year after serving in the chamber since 1989. “And as I’m leaving the House it makes me feel good that I’ve done something to help open the (chamber’s ethics) process.”
The rules changes do bring more transparency to the legislative ethics committees.
To many observers, however, ethics reform in the General Assembly needs to go much further – by eliminating the committees outright and transferring oversight of legislators to an independent entity.
A growing number of lawmakers are coming around to this view, with four bills to that effect now pending in the Legislature.
None of the bills had made much headway. But that could be just one State House scandal away from changing.
Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.