These ethics bodies just aren’t working – and we have proof
By PHILLIP CEASE
Last week the House approved the first round of nominees for the state’s new Ethics Commission. On Wednesday, Senator John Courson appeared before a judge to post bond dealing with criminal ethics-violation charges. These two events, which happened within hours of each other, are the perfect backdrop to show how South Carolina’s current ethics system has failed us and that the law that will go into effect this month will likely suffer the same fate.
Currently, all legislators and candidates for the legislature are policed by their fellow members on the House and Senate ethics committees. The legislators that serve on those committees are judge and jury for ethics violations for representatives and senators. Every other elected official and all other candidates are policed by the Ethics Commission
It should not come as a surprise when, after years of not much enforcement from the committees (other than the occasional powerless lawmaker), an investigation by a non-legislator is starting to produce some revealing charges.
Jimmy Merrill, former House majority leader, and John Courson, former Senate president pro tempore, have both been charged with serious crimes. In fact, the whole investigation started because the House Ethics Committee wasn’t interested in investigating former Speaker Bobby Harrell.
Clearly, the current system failed. Only because the ethics committees were circumvented has there been any real investigation.
Which brings us to the new ethics system in South Carolina. Starting in April, any investigation into a legislator would start with the state Ethics Commission, where legislators will control half the appointments to the eight-member panel. Once the Commission investigates, it will pass its findings to the House or Senate ethics committee. Those committees then will be responsible for determining whether their fellow lawmakers are guilty as well as what any punishment should be.
That’s not much different from the current system.
What the legislature needs to do is pass comprehensive reform that requires reporting all income, including direct or indirect income from government sources, and relationships with and income from lobbyists and lobbyist principals; and that gives responsibility for ethics investigations along with the power to punish legislators to a truly independent panel.
After indictments of lawmakers over the past few years, citizens shouldn’t have confidence in how legislators are policed — and the new system won’t help.