House Panel Drops Proposed Oath Rule after Nerve Story

December 3, 2014

Investigative Reports

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OathA special S.C. House committee that in late October recommended a rule requiring any citizen appearing before a House panel to testify under oath – and face a possible felony charge depending upon the testimony – dropped the proposal by Tuesday after a Nerve story questioned the legality of the rule.

Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Greenville and the only member of the House Rules and Procedures Ad-Hoc Committee to vote against the proposed rule at the panel’s Oct. 30 meeting, toldThe Nerve Tuesday evening he worked Monday with newly installed House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, who appointed the ad-hoc committee; and Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter and the committee chairman, to address issues raised in Monday’s Nerve story.

“I was able to convince them – to their own merit – that the way that thing was introduced in the ad-hoc committee created some misunderstanding,” Bedingfield said. “I just told Murrell there’s got to be a better way to approach this.”

Bedingfield said Smith told him he would have the House Clerk’s Office call ad-hoc committee members and poll them about withdrawing the proposed rule from a package of rules amendments before the package was presented Tuesday afternoon to the full House during its post-election organizational meeting. He said Smith informed him Tuesday morning that “everybody unanimously – more or less – agreed we shouldn’t do it (keep the proposed rule in the rules package).”

Smith announced during a House GOP Caucus meeting Tuesday afternoon, before the full House returned from its morning session to vote on the rules package, that the proposed oath rule had been withdrawn, Rep. Ralph Norman, R-York, told The Nerve later Tuesday afternoon.

“The point was raised, and he (Smith) said it was gone,” Norman said. “He knew there was going to be a war.”

Newly elected Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Anderson, told The Nerve after Tuesday’s organizational meeting he was informed that in voting to withdraw the proposed oath rule, the ad-hoc committee “came to realize the authority for that rule simply wasn’t there.”

The Nerve left messages Tuesday afternoon with Smith and Lucas seeking comment. Smith left a return phone message saying, “It was taken out – completely deleted,” though he couldn’t be reached for further comment. Efforts to reach Lucas were unsuccessful.

Under the proposed rule, which was sponsored by Reps. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville; Alan Clemmons, R-Horry; and Kris Crawford, R-Florence, anyone testifying before a House committee, subcommittee or special committee would first have to be sworn in under oath. Those who “wilfully” lied or gave “materially misleading” or “materially incomplete” testimony could be found by the respective panel in “contempt of the General Assembly” and referred to prosecutors for a possible felony indictment.

Under a new state law that takes effect Jan. 1, conviction of “contempt of the General Assembly” carries a maximum penalty of five years in state prison and a fine to be determined by the sentencing judge.

“If we want people to come up here and tell us how to spend the state’s coffers that we take at the barrel of guns … they should come and tell us the truth,” Crawford said at the Oct. 30 ad-hoc committee meeting.

The Nerve reported on Monday that after pointing out to Smith, who was interviewed last Wednesday, that the proposed oath rule would greatly expand House members’ power over citizens compared to what the new state law covers, Smith said the proposal, if adopted, likely would have to be amended to comply with the law. Bedingfield told The Nerve last week that if necessary, he would try to kill the proposed rule at Tuesday’s organizational meeting of the full House.

Under the new law, witnesses testifying before legislative committees can be found in “contempt of the General Assembly,” but The Nerve’s review found that it applies only to the Legislature’s oversight responsibility of state agencies, not to the general public. The Nerve also found that under a nearly 30-year-old state law, legislative committees can subpoena witnesses and place them under the oath, but that law focuses on testimony by government officials.

Bedingfield, who is not a lawyer, said he made that point Monday to Smith and Lucas, both of whom are attorneys.

“That (law) came out of checks on the executive branch,” Bedingfield said. “It wasn’t meant for the general citizenry.”

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