Senate Panel Rewrites Disputed House Ethics-Reform Bill

May 8, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Got EthicsA Senate panel Tuesday scrapped major parts of a controversial House ethics-reform bill, putting investigations of lawmakers under a reconstituted State Ethics Commission and proposing tougher penalties for ethics violations.

The bill (H. 3945) passed by the House would create a 16-member “Joint Committee on Ethics” that would be filled by Republican and Democratic legislators from both chambers, and eight citizens appointed by both chambers. The joint committee would replace the existing House and Senate Ethics committees, which investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers in their respective chambers.

In contrast, under a proposal Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston and a Senate Judiciary subcommittee member, the State Ethics Commission, which currently has jurisdiction over public officials except lawmakers, would investigate complaints against legislators, referring potential criminal matters to the S.C. Attorney General’s Office. The House and Senate Ethics committees would punish lawmakers for non-criminal matters referred to those panels by the Ethics Commission.

Under Campsen’s proposal, the makeup of the Ethics Commission board would include four appointees from the governor and two each from the House and Senate. The current nine-member board is appointed by the governor, with consent of the General Assembly.

“There’s no one here that supports the House version (that would create the Joint Committee on Ethics),” said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg and a Senate Judiciary subcommittee member, during Tuesday’s subcommittee hearing.

Senators on Tuesday took jabs at the House bill, which passed under a rushed schedule one week ago to meet a May 1 crossover deadline for legislation passed by either chamber.

Under questioning on the Senate floor earlier Tuesday, Sen. Tom Alexander, R-Oconee, said the goal is to have an ethics-reform bill pass the Senate Judiciary Committee this week so it gets scheduled for floor debate after the Senate takes up the state budget next week.  It remains to be seen whether there is enough time left in this legislative session for the Senate to handle both the budget and ethics reform.

“You’re not starting with the (House) bill that we got all the complaints about?” asked Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, of Alexander during Tuesday’s floor session.

In what observers said was an unprecedented situation in recent memory, the first written version of H. 3945, 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  that the bill would require citizens to register as lobbyists to testify before legislative committees and state agencies.

In another part of the bill that the Senate Judiciary subcommittee amended Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, revealed a tiered system of penalties for ethics violations. The Nerve could not immediately obtain a copy of that amendment Tuesday, but based on the details from the panel discussion, it resembles the penalties recommended by the governor-appointed S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform. Those penalties would include:

  • A fine of $1,000 or 30 days in jail for a misdemeanor involving $2,000 or less in campaign funds;
  • A fine at the court’s discretion or a prison sentence of no more than five years for a felony involving more than $2,000 but less than $10,000 in campaign funds; and
  • A fine at the court’s discretion or a prison sentence of no more than 10 years for a felony involving $10,000 or more in campaign funds.

Massey told The Nerve after the hearing that if the Senate language becomes law, officials who used their office for personal gain involving $10,000 or more would face a felony charge for the first time.

In contrast to the proposal before the Senate panel, the House stuck mainly with the status quo on criminal penalties – the current misdemeanor penalty – after the controversy put House leaders on a quest to redo H. 3945.

The amended H. 3945 that the House passed last week also would:

  • Ban leadership political-action committees, which the Senate panel  agreed to Tuesday;
  • Establish a multi-agency “Public Integrity Unit” within the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate criminal cases, which the Senate panel agreed to Tuesday;
  • 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 Commission on Ethics Reform. H. 3945 does not require spouses to disclose their private sources of income, though the plan considered by the Senate panel would include spouses.

Campsen said he met with Gov. Nikki Haley on his income-disclosure amendment.

Lynn Teague, advocacy director of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, liked Campsen’s proposal.

“It looks very good. It looks very comprehensive,” Teague told the subcommittee after seeing a copy of Campsen’s amendment.

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.