House Leaders Plan Changes to ‘Ethics-Reform’ Bill in Secret; Debate Delayed Again

April 26, 2013

Investigative Reports

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SC House ChamberA controversial S.C. House “ethics-reform” bill criticized for being shrouded in secrecy grew even more mysterious Thursday when House leaders delayed floor debate yet again after a secret meeting on a planned overhaul of the legislation.

Members of the Republican Caucus learned in a closed-door meeting Thursday that there would be a 38-page “strike-and-insert” amendment to H. 3945, several lawmakers toldThe Nerve. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter and head of a GOP Caucus study group that examined ethics reform.

Without any public explanation, House leaders moved floor debate on the bill until next Tuesday after rescheduling it earlier this week for Thursday.

A copy of the proposed amendment was not released publicly Thursday. But Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington and a member of a House Judiciary subcommittee that approved H. 3945 last week, revealed the planned changes to The Nerve later on Thursday.

The GOP-sponsored amendment, a copy of which Quinn provided to The Nerve, includes:

  • Restoring deleted criminal penalties for many ethical violations, though it wouldn’t increase penalties as recommended earlier this year by a governor-appointed study commission. A firestorm of public criticism erupted late last week after it was learned that penalties specified in current law would be deleted with the bill;
  • Restoring an exemption in the law for citizens to speak before legislative committees or state agencies without having to register with the state as lobbyists. The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, and other nonprofit organizations on Wednesday collectively criticized that proposal and other aspects of the bill during a State House press conference. The amendment also would require lobbyists for local governments and school districts to register with the state; and
  • Expanding a proposed “super-committee” that would investigate alleged ethical violations by legislators. The super-committee, to be made up of legislators and citizens, would replace the standing House and Senate Ethics committees, though it would still be, in effect, controlled by lawmakers. Criminal matters would be investigated by a multi-agency “Public Integrity Unit” within the S.C. Attorney General’s Office.

“We’re back to where we were two weeks ago,” Lynn Teague, advocacy director for the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, told The Nerve after first learning about the strike-and-insert amendment. “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Teague said she wants to see a copy of the proposed amendment, noting she heard that it doesn’t address most of the concerns raised Wednesday by the nonprofit organizations, which included the League of Women Voters.

Tuesday will be a critical day for the bill because it marks the day before a deadline for legislation to be passed to the other chamber. Leaders in both houses and GOP Gov. Nikki Haley have touted ethics reform as a key issue this session.

Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg,  told The Nerve on Thursday that he knew Haley was included in the talks on the latest planned changes to the bill, but he did not know the level of her involvement.

Both a House Judiciary subcommittee and the full committee last week approved the bill, even though there was no written version of the legislation at either meeting. Critics say that move, in effect, shut out public comment.

A written version of the bill was first made publicly available on the Legislature’s website on the evening of April 18 – a week after it was initially introduced on the House floor.

As with the original bill version, a copy of the 38-page amendment proposed by Republicans was not made publicly available Thursday afternoon, though Quinn on Thursday evening provided a copy of it toThe Nerve upon request.

“After much discussion, the decision was to make a copy of what is being proposed and get it everyone and take it back up on Tuesday,” Rep. Ralph Norman, R-York, said in a text message early Thursday afternoon to The Nerve.

The Nerve first reported last Friday that H. 3945 would delete language in a section of state law (8-13-1520) specifying criminal penalties for, among other things, violations of campaign-finance requirements and ethical rules of conduct. The Nerve also first reported this week plans by House Republicans and Democrats to restore the criminal penalties.

The Nerve also reported first how a diverse coalition of groups revealed Wednesday that the bill would require private citizens to register as lobbyists to testify before legislative committees or state agencies.

The Nerve first revealed details of H. 3945 here.  Among other things, the bill would require lawmakers to report the sources of their private income. South Carolina is the only state that requires legislators to report just their government sources of income, according to a report issued in January by the governor-appointed S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform.

Quinn told The Nerve on Thursday that he favors criminal penalties in line with what was recommended by the ethics-reform commission, though he noted that some House Republicans believe that any punishment should reflect current law. The amendment would restore deleted language in the bill dealing with existing criminal penalties, though future convictions would based on ethics violations that were “wilfully and knowingly” committed, and certain “technical” violations, such as late filings of required reports, would result in civil fines.

The penalties recommended by 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.

(Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, told The Nerve after this story was published that he would push an amendment on Tuesday that would seek penalties more in line with what was recommended by the S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform.)

Under the current law in question, ethical violations are classified as misdemeanors, punishable by up to one year in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Besides restoring criminal penalties in the bill, the proposed 38-page amendment to H. 3945 also would establish a “Joint Committee on Ethics,” making the new body 16 members, up from 12 members as approved by the House Judiciary Committee. The super-committee would eliminate the separate House and Senate Ethics committees, which currently police lawmakers’ ethical behavior, though critics have long complained about the committees’ ineffectiveness and inherent conflicts of interest with lawmakers policing themselves.

The proposed super-committee would be made up of four Republican and four Democratic legislators from both chambers, along with eight citizens to be appointed by the majority and minority parties in each chamber, which means legislators would effectively control the panel.

“We have to deal with both parties,” Quinn said, noting the proposed split of Republicans and Democrats on the proposed committee. “Every time you add one new member, you had to add two.”

Quinn said he prefers that lawmakers not police themselves on ethical issues, though he added that after a state Supreme Court ruling Wednesday, “it’s clear we don’t have support for it” in the House.

Quinn said the ruling, which struck down a state Budget and Control Board move that reversed a General Assembly appropriation for this fiscal year to pay for the increase in health-insurance premiums of state employees, has emboldened lawmakers to maintain their grip on the ethics-investigation process.

Contacted Thursday by The Nerve, John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause of South Carolina and one of the speakers at Wednesday’s press conference, wasn’t impressed when informed about plans to expand the proposed super-committee to 16 members.

“Jesus only had 12 disciples,” he quipped.

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.