Few House and Senate Ethics Opinions Issued in Recent Years

November 5, 2014

Investigative Reports

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SC State HouseWhen it comes to policing itself for ethical violations, the 170-member General Assembly hasn’t shown much interest in recent years – if you go by the number of formal opinions produced by the chambers’ ethics committees.

The House and Senate Ethics committees issue written advisory opinions to their respective chambers to guide them when questions arise about state ethics laws. By law, the 124-member House and 46-member Senate monitor themselves for ethical violations, which critics contend has protected lawmakers over the years from being investigated for serious offenses.

A review by The Nerve of 123 advisory opinions issued by the House Ethics Committee and 38 advisory opinions issued by the Senate Ethics Committee since 1992, when the current state Ethics Act took effect, found that:

  • Of the 123 House opinions, 91, or 74 percent, and 25, or 66 percent, of the 38 Senate opinions were issued from 1992 through 1994 – when the State House was recoiling from the federal Operation Lost Trust bribery scandal that netted 27 guilty pleas or jury convictions, including 17 from lawmakers.
  • There were 13 years in which the Senate Ethics Committee issued no opinions; none has been issued since 2007. Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, took over as committee chairman in the 2013 legislative session, replacing longtime chairman Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York. Since 1998, the Senate committee has issued only five formal opinions, according to records provided last week to The Nerve.
  • One advisory opinion was issued from 2005 through 2012 when Bobby Harrell,  who resigned from office last month after pleading guilty to six counts of illegally spending campaign money for personal expenses, was the House speaker. Four opinions were issued last year when the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – filed a public corruption complaint against Harrell with S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, and two more opinions were adopted in June this year while the state grand jury was investigating Harrell. From 1998 through 2012, the House committee issued only 10 formal opinions, online records show.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken, who served as the House Ethics Committee chairman during most of Harrell’s tenure as House speaker, said he couldn’t recall the number of advisory opinions issued by the committee when he was chairman.

Asked if the committee more often issued informal opinions – which typically aren’t available publicly – to House members, Smith replied, “Pretty much the case.”

Hayes, who served as the Senate Ethics Committee chairman from 2000-2012, told The Nerve when contacted Monday that more formal opinions were issued by the full committee in the immediate years after the Lost Trust scandal likely because there were “a lot of things that needed to be pinned down,” adding, “After those interpretations, the need for opinions probably went down.”

In recent years, senators typically have received informal opinions from committee staff, Hayes said, noting, “Most of the time, people would ask about things that were well-settled. It was not like we’re cutting new ground.”

Asked if informal opinions should be made public, Hayes replied, “I don’t see the need when everyone asks a question of the committee to have a public answer.”  He gave an example of  a senator asking for an opinion about a situation in which the lawmaker “made a mistake” that could result in a “non-public reprimand.”

Rankin did not respond to a phone message last week from The Nerve seeking comment.

Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington and the current House Ethics Committee chairman, as well as two committee staffers, did not respond last week to written questions from The Nerve about the committee’s advisory opinions.

The Nerve last month revealed that Bingham, who took over as the committee chairman in last year’s legislative session, did not disclose on his annual income-disclosure statements several state contracts that his engineering business had received in recent years.

“At a minimum, it’s a lack of interest in ethics when Bobby was the speaker,” said John Crangle, director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause of South Carolina, when contacted last week by The Nerve about the low number of House ethics opinions. “At worst, it could be hostility toward ethics.”

Another problem in the House, Crangle said, is that there are fewer members compared to the Senate who were in the Legislature when the Lost Trust scandal broke in 1990, noting, “I think the House maybe is more insensitive about ethics issues than the Senate.”

Among other things, The Nerve asked Bingham and Steve Davidson, the committee’s chief lawyer, whether an opinion adopted June 5 of this year had anything to do with Harrell’s criminal case. When that opinion was adopted, Harrell’s criminal case was still pending before the state grand jury, which didn’t issue any indictments, though a Richland County grand jury in September indicted the then-speaker on nine counts.

The Charleston Republican, who became the House speaker in 2005, never faced any public scrutiny by the House Ethics Committee.

The June 5 opinion addressed the ethical question of the “appropriate method of reimbursement” for House members who use their personal vehicles for travel related to their campaigns or legislative office. The committee previously had issued no formal opinions on that question, The Nerve’s review found.

State law (Section 8-13-1348 of the S.C. Code of Law) allows campaign funds to be used to cover “reasonable and necessary travel expenses” for a “political event,” and bans those funds from being “converted to personal use.”

For years, state budget provisos have tied car mileage reimbursements for lawmakers’ official travel to prevailing mileage rates set by the Internal Revenue Service. The June 5 opinion established the IRS mileage standard for both official and campaign travel by House members using their personal vehicles, though it noted, “Lastly, the Committee determines that this opinion applies prospectively.

“Going forward, reimbursement at the IRS rate is the only appropriate method of reimbursement for use of a personal vehicle for travel related to the campaign or office.”

The opinion did not specifically address plane travel by lawmakers. Besides receiving car mileage reimbursements – paid by taxpayers – for travel from his Charleston home to Columbia during legislative session weeks, Harrell, a licensed pilot, also reimbursed himself tens of thousands of dollars from his campaign account for use of his private plane, records showed.

He pleaded guilty last month to reimbursing himself $93,958 from his campaign account for expenses relating to his private plane, which was “neither related to his campaign nor his office,” according to one of the indictments. Four other indictments he pleaded guilty to involved campaign account reimbursements for claimed private plane trips between Charleston and Columbia that never occurred; he also pleaded guilty to using campaign funds to reimburse himself for a private plane trip to a Florida baseball tournament.

As part of his plea agreement, Harrell, who was first elected to the House in 1992, resigned his House seat and agreed not to seek public office for three years. He was placed on three years’ probation and ordered to pay $30,000 in fines and $93,958 to the state’s general fund, which would be considered reimbursement to his campaign account.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.