October 1, 2022

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

Governor, Former Lt. Governor Cases Highlight House Ethics Secrecy

7f9b98663765cb2e0064e3d3990d84f9A judge’s recent dismissal of an ethics lawsuit against Gov. Nikki Haley serves as yet another example of secrecy surrounding ethics matters in the S.C. House.

So does the case of former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, who pleaded guilty to seven campaign finance violations and resigned earlier this month.

Both the Haley and Ard cases attracted much media attention. But largely lost in that political din and fray was the secrecy of legislative ethics proceedings, particularly in the House.

Earlier this week, some House Democrats called for Haley, a Republican, to disclose whether an ethics complaint has been filed against her with the House Ethics Committee and whether the committee is investigating any such complaint.

They also urged Haley, if such a proceeding is under way, to waive her right to confidentiality in the matter and open it up to the public.

This happened after a judge tossed out a lawsuit against Haley accusing her of ethics violations when she was a House member before she became governor. The judge said the state Ethics Commission or the House Ethics Committee, not the judicial system, is the proper venue to vet the issue.

The Ethics Commission, however, has no jurisdiction over legislators. It is a separate agency that oversees state constitutional officers, including the lieutenant governor, and local elected officials such as city and county council members.

Lawmakers, by contrast, police themselves through separate House and Senate ethics committees, which historically have been hush-hush about what, if anything, they have done involving legislators.

Media reports said Haley’s office indicated she would not waive confidentiality if a complaint against her is filed with the House Ethics Committee.

But if the House Ethics Committee operated under the same, more transparent guidelines as the Ethics Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee do, a confidentiality waiver by Haley wouldn’t be necessary.

Before 2011, a case before the Ethics Commission was kept private until it was resolved unless the defendant waived confidentiality. But last year the law was changed so that a commission case becomes public if it involves probable cause of a violation.

Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, sponsored the amendment to the law.

Subsequently, the Senate changed its operating rules so that the Senate Ethics Committee follows the same standard: If the committee finds probable cause that a formal allegation against a senator involves a violation, the case becomes public.

Shortly after the Senate made that change to its rules, Harrison sponsored a resolution to do likewise in the House.

Harrison’s resolution, H. 3445, was sent to the House Rules Committee and it picked up five co-sponsors. But the committee, despite meeting three times during the 2011 legislative session, never acted on it.

Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, was the committee chairman at the time but no longer is. White now chairs the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee.

The Nerve recounted those details in this Jan. 17 story. Within one week of that story being published, three more House members signed onto Harrison’s resolution as co-sponsors, including new House Rules Chairman Alan Clemmons, R-Horry.

Interviewed recently for a different story, House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, told The Nerve that he expects the House to pass the measure next year. “I’ve talked to the speaker about it and I fully anticipate that that rule (change) will be adopted in January,” Bingham said.

Thus for this year at least, if a complaint against Haley is filed with the House Ethics Committee and it involves probable cause of a violation, any investigation of it by the panel would occur behind closed doors – instead of out in the open.

The Ard case also exemplifies the House’s lack of ethics transparency. As the former lieutenant governor, Ard was a constitutional officer and the Ethics Commission’s case against him was publicly disclosed throughout the process.

That would not have happened if Ard had been a House member instead.

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

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The Nerve