South Carolina Legislature passes ethics reform

Bill passes after Center/Post and Courier investigation highlighted abuses

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South Carolina lawmakers don't earn large salaries for holding office, but some bring in cash connected to government for everything from public relations campaigns to engineering work, health care contracts and legal services through their side businesses or those of their immediate family members. Here, the South Carolina House of Representatives is empty after the end of the term on Aug. 1, 2014. 

Grace Beahm/Post and Courier Staff

COLUMBIA — After a slow, four-year march toward ethics reform, the South Carolina General Assembly late Wednesday adopted two bills requiring lawmakers to disclose sources of independent income and also creating an independent investigation commission to oversee lawmaker conduct.

They now go to Gov. Nikki Haley for her signature.

Lawmakers in a compromise committee reached an agreement that will require elected officials who file a statement of economic interest — from the governor down to locally appointed boards — to include sources of private taxable income.

Members of the House and Senate voted unanimously for approval.

“This is just one of the elements of ethics reform that we’ve looked at,” said Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who has led the charge for reform in the Senate all year. “It’s not a big element, but it’s an important element. It’s a start.”

Last fall, the “Capitol Gains” series published by The Post and Courier and The Center for Public Integrity spelled out problems with income disclosure requirements and an ethics system in which lawmakers police themselves. The series found that some lawmakers used their campaign war chests like personal ATM machines, profited off business deals with government and failed to disclose key sources of income while policing their own behavior through internal ethics committees.

South Carolina had earned a D- in the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation in November, ranking 36th worst in the nation in part for its minimal disclosure laws and the not enough independence in its ethics enforcement agencies.

Some lawmakers said the bill that passed was not truly reform because it does not require elected officials to disclose how much money they make. Others were upset the Legislature did not work to regulate campaign spending by outside groups, so-called “dark money.”

“We’ve debated ethics for how many years now?” said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, as he held up a sheet of paper signifying the measure. “It’s not even a whole page. That’s what we’ve got. What I don’t want anybody to leave here thinking is we’ve done ethics reform.

“This is a step in the right direction. But if there was a baby step, this is the babiest of baby steps,” Hutto said.

Elected officials will be required to list the source and type of all private income on their statements of economic interest filed with the election commission, including the income of their spouse and anyone they claim as a dependent.

Lawmakers also unanimously passed a bill creating an eight-member ethics commission to investigate when elected officials are accused of wrongdoing.

Currently, lawmakers lack such independent oversight. The state Ethics Commission has the power to enforce laws for everyone but them. House and Senate lawmakers each have their own separate ethics committees to take complaints and police themselves.

The independent commission called for in the bill would add more oversight. If the commission finds probable cause, it would make a recommendation to the House or Senate ethics committee. If the committee agrees there is probable cause, the investigation will become public. If the legislative committee disagrees with the commission’s findings, it can send it back to the independent panel for a second look before the investigation becomes public.

Public disclosure had been a sticking point for the two bodies, but lawmakers were able to reach a compromise late Wednesday.

“I’m pleased,” said the bill’s author Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York. “If you had asked me 10 times during this day, I would not have told you that it were possible.”

Haley praised the lawmakers on social media shortly after the votes, thanking them for their work on ethics reform and “bringing this home.”

This story was co-published with The Post and Courier.

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