Focusing in on ethics reforms

Written by John Crangle on March 12, 2015

Ethics thumbnail for issue buckets

Ethics reform is the major concern of Common Cause South Carolina in the 2015 legislative session of the South Carolina General Assembly.

The Senate is now considering its ethics reform bill  (S1) The House has already passed 14 separate ethics reform bills, which Speaker Jay Lucas (R-Hartsville) has compiled into an Omnibus House Ethics Bill. (H3722) H3722 will be going to the Senate shortly.

The major reforms common to both S1 and H3722 are

  • A ban on leadership PACS used by past house officials, such as Former Speaker Bobby Harrell (who was convicted of criminal charges), as political slush funds.
  • A requirement that political groups which spend money on television ads and mailings to support or oppose state and local candidates file disclosure statements on the source of income.
  • A new enforcement mechanism for ethics law, which provides arms-length enforcement in the cases involving state legislators.

Common Cause South Carolina backs all of these reforms and has been actively lobbying such reforms for years at the State House.

The 1991 Ethics Act, which was in large part designed and lobbied by Common Cause SC in the aftermath of Operation Lost Trust, was an excellent law when passed. However, over 20+ years it has become obsolete. Special interests and politicians devised new ways to collect and use political funds. Furthermore, the Legislative Ethics Committee designed in the Act had always been prone to conflicts of interest.

The most controversial issue now delaying the progression of S1 in the Senate is the provision of the bill which would limit infestation of ethics complaints against legislators to the State Ethics Commission. Sen. Luke Rankin (R-Horry) had proposed an amendment to give investigative authority over such complaints to a new joint legislative ethics committee, which would include 2 committee members selected by the Senate, two more selected by the House, and four appointed by the Governor.

I am of the opinion that either the State Ethics Commission or the Rankin designed Legislative Ethics Committee would be satisfactory.

The South Carolina Supreme Court decision in the Harrell-Wilson case in 2014 makes it clear that any complaint alleging criminal conduct by the legislature may be taken directly to the Attorney General and need not be filed with any legislative ethics committee prior to going to the Attorney General.

In addition to the major reforms relating to leadership PACS, “dark money” disclosure, and the Attorney General’s independent criminal investigate powers, Common Cause South Carolina strongly advocates for a state whistleblower bill.  

Representative Laurie Funderburk (D-Kershaw) proposed a state whistleblower bill in H. 3048. Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D-Kershaw) has also proposed a whistleblower bill in the Senate. The proposed whistleblower bill would protect state and local government employees against retaliation for exposing embezzlement, theft, fraud, and waste relating to public assets. It would also provide a financial reward to whistleblowers in cases where state or local government recovered funds.

We encourage all citizens of South Carolina to follow the progress of the bills and contact their Senators, Representatives, and Governor Haley to indicate their opinion about the merits of the bills.

The recent scandal involving Lieutenant Governor Ard, Speaker Harrell, and nine South Carolina sheriffs accused of crimes have focused the attention of the Governor, Attorney General, the General Assembly, the media, and the citizens of the urgent need for ethics reform and aggressive ethics reforms.

Common Cause South Carolina continues to play a leading role in the campaign to clean up local and state government in South Carolina. 

Office: Common Cause National, Common Cause South Carolina

Issues: Ethics

Tags: State Ethics

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