S.C. House Rushes Through Amended Ethics-Reform Bill

May 1, 2013

Investigative Reports

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SC House ChamberAfter delaying debate several times over the past week, the S.C. House took less than an hour late Tuesday afternoon to approve an amended ethics-reform bill, though two opposing lawmakers complained afterward they didn’t have time to review the changes.

“The bill was literally changing minutes before we were asked to vote,” Rep. Ralph Norman, R-York, said in a text message to The Nerve. “There was no written document to compare the document we received over the weekend.

“I have totally lost confidence, and more importantly, trust in leadership.”

Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Spartanburg and who also voted against H. 3945, told The Nerve that while there are several good aspects about the bill, he felt more time could have been spent on it.

In a vote of 113 to 7, the House approved a second reading of the bill; an expected routine third reading likely will occur today so the legislation can be sent to the Senate to meet a chamber-crossover deadline. (Update: The House approved the third reading of H. 3945 on a vote of 101-5 at about noon Wednesday.)

Besides Norman and Chumley, other House members who voted against H. 3945 included Reps. Eric Bedingfield, R-Greenville; Greg Delleney, R-Chester; Raye Felder, R-York; Dennis Moss, R-Cherokee; and Mike Pitts, R-Laurens.

At least six House members demonstrated their apparent frustration with H. 3945, removing their names as co-sponsors, though all six voted for passage. Those lawmakers were Republicans Rita Allison, Mike Forrester and Doug Brannon, all of Spartanburg County;  Mike Burns, R-Greenville; Lester Branham, D-Florence; and Robert Brown, D-Charleston.

In what observers said was an unprecedented situation in recent memory, the first written version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, wasn’t released publicly until April 18, a week after it was introduced on the House floor. A House subcommittee and the full committee approved the bill that week without public comment; critics contended they couldn’t participate in the meetings because there was no text of the legislation to review.

Once a written version of the bill was released, public outcry erupted after it was learned, as first reported by The Nerve, that many ethics violations would be decriminalized under the bill. A coalition of diverse groups, including the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, revealed last week that the bill would require citizens to register as lobbyists to testify before legislative committees and state agencies.

Floor debate on the legislation was scheduled for last week, though it was delayed several times and rescheduled for this week.

Meanwhile, a 38-page “strike-and-insert” amendment replacing the original bill was crafted by House leaders in secret and released Thursday evening to The Nerve. The new version restored language about criminal penalties for many ethics violations, though it would make certain technical violations civil infractions and also would make it tougher to prosecute cases by proving that criminal offenses were committed “willfully and knowingly.”

Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington and a member of the House Judiciary subcommittee that approved the original version of H. 3945, confirmed in a text message to The Nerve after Tuesday’s vote that the final bill deleted “knowingly” but kept “willfully.”

Quinn said the other key change made on the House floor was “if you have a state contract at any level of government, you have to report it,” contending that provision makes the bill stronger.

During the floor debate, Quinn successfully killed an amendment by Pitts, who wanted to prohibit the state’s nine constitutional officers, including the governor, from appointing someone to an agency if the officer accepted a campaign contribution from the person or that person’s immediate family.

The amended bill also would:

  • Not force citizens to register as lobbyists, though it would require lobbyists for local governments and school districts to register with the state;
  • Create a “Joint Committee on Ethics” to investigate alleged ethical violations by lawmakers, though with half of the proposed 16-member “super-committee” made up of lawmakers and the other half composed of citizens appointed by legislators, it effectively would be controlled by lawmakers. This issue was a problem for Norman and Bedingfield;
  • Establish a multi-agency “Public Integrity Unit” within the S.C. Attorney General’s Office to investigate criminal cases; and
  • Require lawmakers to report their private sources of income. South Carolina is the only state that requires lawmakers to report just their government-income sources, according to a report by the governor-appointed S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform.

The 38-page amendment was sponsored by Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville and chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee that approved the original version of H. 3945. Bannister, the House majority leader, defended the changes on the House floor Tuesday.

“The bill as it’s drafted now does not decriminalize penalties (for ethics violations),” Bannister said under questioning on the amendment. “In my opinion, it’s a substantial strengthening of the ethics law.”

Contacted by The Nerve after the House vote, John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause of South Carolina, criticized the proposed super-committee that would oversee lawmakers.

“You’re not going to get an outside force (doing ethics investigations),” he said. “They’re just not going to allow it.”

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.