S.C. Among Only 7 States with Legislative Ethics Self-Policing

June 25, 2012

Investigative Reports

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Fox in HenhouseSouth Carolina is one of only seven states whose ethics oversight bodies cannot investigate and issue penalties to their state lawmakers, a review by The Nerve has found.

Instead, South Carolina legislators monitor themselves through separate House and Senate Ethics committees comprised of members of each chamber, respectively.

Their independent counterpart, the State Ethics Commission, is comprised of individuals appointed by the governor and oversees other state and local officials.

Individuals cannot serve on the Ethics Commission while holding or seeking public office or working as a public employee or lobbyist.

While South Carolina’s legislative self-policing is not unheard of across the United States, Cathy Hazelwood, the Ethics Commission’s deputy director, told The Nerve in a written response that, “An independent legislative ethics committee with no current legislators appears to be the norm nationally.”

According to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), South Carolina is one of only seven states that do not allow their ethics commission to investigate and enforce penalties on their state lawmakers.

The other six states are Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New York and Ohio, according to the NCSL.

Four other states allow their commissions to investigate legislators but not issue penalties to them, according to the NCSL survey.

The issue of South Carolina legislators watching over themselves in ethics matters, which The Nerve first began reporting on more than two years ago, has attracted a statewide spotlight recently because of a case involving Gov. Nikki Haley.

The case centers on allegations that Haley violated ethics laws as a House member before she became governor. Haley consistently has denied the charges and characterized them as political.

The House Ethics Committee is scheduled to hear public testimony in the case Thursday.

For most of their histories, the S.C. House and Senate Ethics committees were not required to share information about cases and proceedings pending before the panels.

But as a result of rules changes passed in the House in May and the Senate in 2011, legislative cases found to have probable cause of a violation are now open to the public.

However, even with increased transparency in the legislative ethics committees, members of the House and Senate still investigate their own colleagues.

In a previous story by The Nerve, Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken and the House Ethics Committee chairman, was asked whether the committee has ever publicly punished a House member in his 20-plus years on the committee. His response: “I don’t recall. I’m being honest.”

Smith, along with House Ethics Committee members Joan Brady, R-Richland, and Laurie Funderburk, D-Kershaw, declined to comment when The Nerve recently asked them about legislative self-policing.

By national comparison, the recent changes passed through both chambers of the General Assembly still leave more room for internal bias than in most other states.

Some members of the House and Senate have argued for more extensive changes to state law, such as granting more power to the Ethics Commission and even more transparency to the legislative committees.

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York and chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, told The Nerve in a phone interview that he believes the two committees still need to make some changes.

“I was involved in adopting the legislation of Operation Lost Trust in 1992 and we really made some strides there that helped, but I think we still have some changes that need to be made,” Hayes said, referring to an infamous legislative bribery scandal.

“Hopefully there will be some reform taking place next year,” Hayes added, citing closer scrutiny of lobbyists’ employers as one issue that needs to be looked at.

Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, also has sought increased accountability in legislative ethics.

In the 2011-12 legislative session, Rose proposed a constitutional amendment, S. 324, to give the Legislature explicit authority to delegate its ethics oversight to an independent entity.

The proposed amendment was forwarded to the Senate Judiciary Committee and did not clear the table before the session ended.

Rose did not respond to email and phone messages seeking comment for this story.

South Carolina’s closest neighbors, Georgia and North Carolina operate with similar ethics systems for public officials, although the Tar Heel State has a measure of greater independence with its state lawmakers.

Georgia’s structure is more or less the same as South Carolina’s, with legislative ethics committees and a commission that polices other officeholders.

The same is true of North Carolina. But its commission does handle investigations of lawmakers.

“If a complaint (against a lawmaker) is filed with the ethics commission, we investigate and see if there’s anything under our jurisdiction and then send it to the ethics committee for them to do their part,” Perry Newson, director of the N.C. Ethics Commission, told The Nerve in a phone interview.

While South Carolina’s legislative ethics committees contend that their investigations and proceedings are done without bias, one could argue that the practice appears to be an example of the fox guarding the henhouse.

Reach Welch at (803) 254-4411 or blake@thenerve.org.