Lawmakers Moving Slowly to Clean Up Their Ethical Act

April 12, 2013

Investigative Reports

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31f2ff781cb1be79a43dea772c42e174Ethics-reform bills that would force S.C. lawmakers to change their behavior remain stuck in committees with an important deadline approaching.

Two of the most significant changes would require lawmakers to start reporting private sources of income and stop policing themselves when ethics violations arise. South Carolina lawmakers are the only state legislators nationwide who aren’t required to disclose their private sources of income, the governor-appointed S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform found.

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York and the former Senate Ethics Committee chairman, has sponsored three bills – S. 338, S. 346 and S. 347 – that tackle these issues. But a Senate Judiciary subcommittee did not discuss income disclosure or other key ethics-reform issues Thursday because senators had to get to the floor session and ran out of time.

Lawmakers have until May 1 to move legislation over to the other chamber or face the likelihood that those bills won’t be taken up again until next year.

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston and a Senate Judiciary subcommittee member, defended the status quo on the Legislature’s authority during Thursday’s meeting.

The senator took ex-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story’s writings from 1833 on the ability of the U.S. House and Senate to discipline its own members as evidence that South Carolina shouldn’t change anything.

“This power (of the Congress) to discipline its members is not limited in its scope,” Campsen said, adding it is “unqualified to the time, place and nature of the offense.”

Campsen emphasized that the S.C. Legislature has “exhaustive power” to discipline members for “disorderly conduct,” arguing it’s a wide-ranging and broad definition, though he didn’t give specifics.

His remarks came in response to John Simpkins, a constitutional law professor at the Charleston School of Law who served as general counsel for the state ethics-reform commission. Simpkins described the current system of legislative ethics as the “fox in charge in the hen house.”

In a follow-up interview with The Nerve, Simpkins disagreed with Campsen’s comparison of the state Legislature to Congress, contending that South Carolina is a “legislative state.”

He said although Campsen defended a broad definition to discipline “disorderly conduct,” the ethics-reform commission has a narrow definition, adding that lawmakers have no business policing themselves on criminal matters.

“He (Campsen) seems to be suggesting there is legislative immunity from being punished in any way unless it’s by the body,” Simpkins said.

Simpkins also said the commission received testimony from people on the right and left who argued lawmakers must be stripped of their power to police themselves.

The Nerve attempted to do a follow-up interview with Campsen, though he didn’t respond by publication of this story.

Ending the General Assembly’s self-policing authority is part of an eight-point reform agenda announced last year by the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve.

Travis Medlock, a former state attorney general who served as a co-chairman of the state ethics-reform commission, said comprehensive reform requires courageous lawmakers in the House and Senate to fight for it.

“We need people with guts and brains, people who would run in front of a German tank,” Medlock told The Nerve Thursday.

Despite the apparent lack of progress on certain bills, Henry McMaster, another former S.C. attorney general and commission co-chairman, was optimistic when contacted Thursday.

“Monumental legislation moves slowly,” he said. “The conversations I have had with legislators are very promising.”

Among those attending Thursday’s hearing was John Crangle, executive director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause of South Carolina. He told The Nerve afterward that he saw a lack of will for ethics reform among subcommittee members.

“It’s the appearance of reform activity without the substance of reform activity,” he said.

S. 346, which was the only Hayes bill that got attention during Thursday’s hearing, would allow voters statewide to decide whether to amend the S.C. Constitution to give the State Ethics Commission power to discipline members of the General Assembly for ethical misconduct. The House and Senate Ethics committees would not be eliminated, retaining the power of expulsion from the Legislature, as well as discipline for minor matters.

Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington and a subcommittee member, said he would not approve S. 346, contending that to have meaningful ethics reform, the state must pass a law that imposes liability on individuals and companies that defraud governmental programs.

Malloy said he has sponsored a False Claims Act bill for seven consecutive years, including S. 73 this session.

The Nerve previously has reported on several ethics-reform bills in the General Assembly. They include Hayes’  proposed “2013 Ethics Reform Act,” (S. 338) which would:

  • Require political committees to file expense reports.This would address the state’s definition of “committees”; two federal courts ruled the old definition was too broad. Because of that, groups have been able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from undisclosed sources;
  • Require lawmakers to disclose all sources of income; and
  • Ban leadership political-action committees.

The subcommittee Thursday approved S. 505, sponsored by Hayes and three senators, to create a “Public Integrity Unit,” which would require cooperation among the S.C. Attorney General’s Office, state Department of Revenue, State Law Enforcement Division, State Ethics Commission and the S.C. Inspector General’s Office to investigate ethics violations. The unit would have a sunset clause to monitor its effectiveness.

The subcommittee also approved S. 412, sponsored by Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston and five others. The amended bill will create another campaign-finance disclosure date five days before an election.

Asked Wednesday about the progress of ethics-reform bills, Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens and the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, told The Nerve:  “(Ethics reform) hasn’t moved as quickly as I hoped, but there is still a window of opportunity. I think there’s a broad view this is an issue we need to take up. I know there’s a lot of sentiment to move on it.”

But the House Judiciary Committee has several ethics-reform bills still in committee. The Nerve received an email Wednesday from committee staff stating that four such bills have received no subcommittee action.

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.