In a state where many are calling for massive ethics reforms, the push by South Carolina’s top prosecutor for a public-corruption task force composed of several state agencies picked up some support Wednesday during a special House panel meeting.
But a number of details about the “Public Integrity Unit,” proposed by Attorney General Alan Wilson, have not yet been revealed, including the estimated cost to taxpayers.
Wilson wants lawmakers to “codify the functions” of the unit in the wake of recent high-profile ethics cases involving state officials, including House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s use of campaign funds to reimburse himself for use of his private plane for legislative and political trips, The Nerve reported previously.
So far, the proposed task force has no authority yet. But some members of the House Republican Caucus Ethics Study Committee on Wednesday were receptive to the idea.
“I like the idea of a Public Integrity Unit because I think that we have to have a body that has the ability to conduct an investigation,” said Patrick Dennis, the House Judiciary Committee’s chief attorney.
But he said deciding how much power the unit would have must be addressed, noting, “The devil’s in the details.”
Other specifics about the proposed group are unknown, such as the projected taxpayer cost. Contacted after Wednesday’s meeting, Wilson spokesman Mark Powell told The Nerve that “each partner agency is providing manpower and paying its own costs," though he didn’t provide an estimated cost breakdown.
In his written response, Powell said the “only projected new expense is office space for the task force to work in, and the Office of the Attorney General will modify existing space within this office to house the task force.” But no cost projections have been made for that expenditure, he said.
Asked what the proposed unit would do that existing agencies that would make up the group could not do on their own, Powell replied that the task force would “coordinate investigations for time saving, more thorough investigations and cost savings for separate investigations.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Deputy Attorney General Barry Bernstein said the proposed unit is modeled after similar established groups in Rhode Island, Nebraska and Kansas.
“There are a number of states that have it in different phases,” he said. “There are about four states that have codified something, and there are a number of states that have initiatives.”
South Carolina’s Public Integrity Unit would be made up of representatives from the Attorney General’s Office, the State Law Enforcement Division, Department of Revenue, State Ethics Commission and Inspector General’s Office.
State Ethics Commission Executive Director Herb Hayden said his agency would participate in “whatever capacity” that is needed, adding, “Each agency is contributing certain expertise.”
Some members of the study committee acknowledged that some changes wouldn’t come immediately. Currently, for example, the House and Senate Ethics committees have the authority to investigate alleged ethical violations by members of their respective chambers, which critics contend typically results in few sanctions.
“You all know that we have a House Ethics Committee and Senate Ethics Committee,” Dennis said. “To turn the ultimate authority over to anybody outside of the General Assembly would likely require a constitutional amendment. How should this oversight look as we go forward?”
Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, replied it likely would be a two-year process because a two-thirds vote of both legislative chambers would be needed to make any constitutional changes.
“It can’t happen overnight,” he said. “We can move toward it, but we also need to plan what’s going to happen in those two years in the meantime.”
Reach Legette at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.