June 5, 2023

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

Lawmakers Insist They Will Fix ‘Ethics-Reform’ Bill, Enact Tougher Penalties

Press ConferenceIt took a controversy last week over decriminalized ethics violations to underscore the point to S.C. House members that a rushed and secretive “ethics-reform” bill contained weak penalties for public officials who violate state ethics laws.

Republicans and Democrats scrambled over the weekend to draft amendments to H. 3945, sponsored by Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter and chairman of a House GOP ethics-reform study group, to restore criminal penalties to the bill.

Smith told The Nerve Tuesday that the bill would be “fixed.” Lawmakers also might seek tougher penalties in H. 3945 to follow recommendations from the governor-appointed S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform.

A firestorm of criticism erupted late last week after the first written version of the bill – released a week after the legislation was initially announced – revealed that language in Section 8-13-1520 of the S.C. Code of Laws had been deleted. The Nerve first reported Friday about the deleted language, which specifies criminal penalties for, among other things, violations of campaign-finance requirements and rules of ethical conduct.

H. 3945 emerged from a House Judiciary subcommittee and the full committee earlier last week without public comment, likely because a written version was not available then for public review. The bill was introduced on April 11, though the text of the bill did not appear on the General Assembly’s website until Thursday evening.

The bill was scheduled for debate on the House floor Tuesday. However, Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville and chairman of the Constitutional Laws Subcommittee that heard the bill on April 16, issued an angry press release Tuesday afternoon stating that the floor debate would occur Thursday.

“Nobody is perfect,” the House majority leader and a co-sponsor of the bill, said in his release. “That’s why pencils have erasers. When we take the bill up on Thursday afternoon, I expect ethics reform’s opponents to all call themselves the ‘champions of ethics’ and file many amendments to kill this legislation.”

Bannister told The Nerve last week that the deletion of the criminal section in the bill was not related to an inquiry by the State Law Enforcement Division into possible ethics violations involving House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston and a co-sponsor of H. 3945.

Tuesday, Gov. Nikki Haley sent a letter to all House members encouraging them to restore criminal penalties to the bill.

“While the House Judiciary Committee laid a good foundation upon which the House can begin this important debate, I want to express my concern over the broad de-criminalization of the Ethics Act in the committee amendment,” Haley wrote to House members. “I believe ethics laws must include criminal penalties to deter serious public corruption, and I cannot support any effort to weaken our state’s ethics laws.”

“With that said,” Haley continued, “it is my understanding that many members of the committee intend to fix this error and offer other amendments to further clarify and strengthen the committee amendment, and I appreciate their efforts.”

Haley’s letter surfaced after a press conference Tuesday morning by Democratic Reps. James Smith and Beth Bernstein, both of Richland County, who said Democrats were preparing amendments to restore criminal penalties to the bill and to make penalties even tougher. Smith, a member of the Constitutional Laws Subcommittee, said Democrats want penalties like the S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform recommended.

“The bill in its current form undermines confidence in the South Carolina House and the Senate,” Smith said.

“Nothing about this bill should be less stringent than our current law,” Bernstein said of the decriminalized ethics violations.

The Commission on Ethics Reform recommended a progressive scale of penalties, based on the seriousness of the crime. Contacted this week, Herb Hayden, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, told The Nerve that he developed that proposal  so that the “penalty fits the crime.”

Under the current law in question, violations are classified as misdemeanors with a maximum punishment of one year in prison and a $5,000 fine for each violation. That’s the case, for example, whether an offender used $500 or $100,000 in campaign funds for personal use, Hayden said.

The penalties Hayden recommended to the ethics-reform commission included adding:

  • A graduated range of prison sentences under “classified offenses” that are as low as one year in prison for a Class C misdemeanor, and as high as 30 years in prison for a Class A felony;
  • A fine of $1,000 or 30 days in jail for a misdemeanor involving $2,000 or less in campaign funds;
  • A fine at the court’s discretion or a prison sentence of no more than five years for a felony involving more than $2,000 but less than $10,000 in campaign funds;
  • A fine at the court’s discretion or a prison sentence of no more than 10 years for a felony involving $10,000 or more in campaign funds; and
  • A combination of criminal fines and jail sentences to go along with civil penalties for certain acts of public corruption, such as using one’s office for financial gain, or a public official disclosing confidential information.

“It’s patterned after the breach-of -trust” area of state law, Hayden said.

Henry McMaster, a former state attorney general who served as a co-chairman of the ethics-reform commission, said strong penalties for ethics violations act as a deterrence.

“Without it (strong penalties), the ethics statute would be missing a vital element,” McMaster told The Nerve Tuesday.

“I thought it was a very strong and reasonable approach,” Travis Medlock, a former state attorney general who served as the other commission co-chairman, told The Nerve Monday regarding the stronger penalties recommended in the commission’s final report.

The commission issued its report in January after hearing a variety of ideas from the public, including groups such as Common Cause of South Carolina, the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, and the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve.

Hayden told The Nerve that if he had known when H. 3945 was discussed in subcommittee last week that ethics violations would just be a civil penalty, he would have spoken up against that proposal.

During Tuesday’s press conference, Smith chastised Republican leaders for bringing up the bill close to a May 1 deadline for legislation to be sent to the other chamber.

“We should not be here facing the time crunch,” Smith said. “This is about increasing the confidence our people have in the institution of government.”

Caption: The photo above is from the press conference at the State House Tuesday conducted by Democratic Reps. Beth Bernstein, at the podium, and James Smith, both of Richland County. The photo is by Curt Olson, reporter for The Nerve.

Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or curt@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.

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