Required Ethics Training for State Workers Underway

August 10, 2015

Investigative Reports

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Right or WrongThe new state Department of Administration paid about $61,000 for a web-based training program on ethics that some 24,000 state employees will have to watch, The Nerveconfirmed last week.

Under a 2014 executive order by Gov. Nikki Haley establishing the “State Employee Code of Conduct Task Force,” which made the training recommendations, the instruction is mandatory for workers in the governor’s 17 Cabinet agencies and Governor’s Office.

A House bill (H. 3237) this year would have mandated that all newly elected state and local officials complete at least four hours of ethics instruction provided by the State Ethics Commission. Newly elected House and Senate members would have been required to receive the same instruction through their respective chambers’ ethics committees, under the legislation.

The bill never made it out of the House Judiciary Committee.

Under state law, legislators police themselves for ethics violations. The South Carolina Policy Council –The Nerve’s parent organization – has long called for an end to those self-policing powers.

An eight-member task force established under Haley’s executive order of April 2014 recommended that each Cabinet agency adopt a code of conduct, with the task force recommendations to be used as a model.

The panel, chaired by Holly Pisarik, then-director of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, recommended that the Department of Administration develop a “web-based and/or video training on the requirements” of the code of conduct, according to its nine-page report issued in August 2014. Affected state employees would be required to receive the initial training, “certifying in writing their understanding of this Code,” and take annual “refresher training” and “re-certify their understanding,” the task force recommended.

“Every employee of the agencies specifically referenced in the Task Force recommendations is required to receive the training,” Department of Administration spokeswoman Lindsey Kremlick said last week in a written response to The Nerve, noting there are about 24,260 employees in the 17 Cabinet agencies and Governor’s Office.

She added state agencies that aren’t part of the governor’s Cabinet “may also utilize the training resources,” though it was not immediately known how many are doing so. The task force’s report said there are more than 66,000 employees in 98 state agencies, of which 35 agencies already have a code of conduct, though “those codes are not consistent.”

All employees covered by Haley’s executive order “must receive annual refresher training,” Kremlick said.

Asked if Haley would participate in the training per her executive order, Kremlick referred The Nerve to the Governor’s Office. Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams did not respond to a written message Friday from The Nerve seeking comment.

The House Ethics Committee in 2012 twice cleared Haley, a Republican who was first elected governor in 2010, of alleged ethics violations when she was a House member from Lexington County.

The total cost to develop the web-based training program was $60,875, paid by the Department of Administration’s Division of State Human Resources, Kremlick said.

The task force established under Haley’s 2014 executive order, which included State Ethics Commission Director Herb Hayden, S.C. Inspector General Patrick Maley and Haley’s chief attorney, Swati Patel, recommended the following eight “Standards of Conduct” for state employees:

  • Accepting gifts because of a state employee’s position generally is banned;
  • Employees must avoid conflicts of interest;
  • Top-level agency staff must file annual income-disclosure statements with the State Ethics Commission. The task force recommended that state law be changed to include agency division directors;
  • Employees must use state resources and equipment only for official business, which doesn’t include social media unless specified as part of the worker’s job;
  • Disclosure of restricted or confidential information is prohibited;
  • Employees must “promote a nondiscriminatory work environment”;
  • Ex-state workers must not represent a person or entity before their former agency for one year following their departure if they “directly and substantially participated in” a matter before that agency while they were an employee. The task force recommended that state law be changed to “create a permanent ban, rather than a one-year cooling off period.”
  • Employees must report an “intentional violation” of the code of conduct, or “any federal or state law or regulation by any agency employee, whether temporary or full-time, including a co-worker, subordinate, supervisor, senior manager, or any other employee.”

“Most state employees want to do the right thing, but in the absence of clear or consistent guidance, the right thing is not always readily apparent,” the report said.

The report also said although state officials and employees are “bound by the State Ethics Act,” and the task force’s recommended “Standards of Conduct” generally are based on that law, the act “fails to provide clear guidance in many instances.”

The web-based training program for state employees is divided into six parts, each covering one or more of the eight conduct standards recommended by the task force.

Jamie Murguia, director of research at The South Carolina Policy Council, contributed to this story. Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.