COLUMBIA — A non-legislative study panel created by Gov. Nikki Haley issued nearly two dozen suggestions Monday for changing state ethics laws to make elected officials more accountable and government more responsive to the public.
The 23 recommendations deal with campaign disclosure, lobbying, conflicts of interest, public records and the question of who should handle complaints against legislators. The group also believes penalties for breaking the law should be stronger, to deter bad behavior.
“Our people must have confidence in and respect for our government,” said Henry McMaster, the former two-term Republican attorney general who co-chairs the study panel with former Democratic Attorney General Travis Medlock. “An honest government is vital to our economic prosperity.”
Haley created the panel by executive order in October, saying an independent group composed of no current elected officers needed to weigh in on the ethics issue.
The 11-member panel is one of several such study committees. The House Republican and Democratic caucuses each have one, as do senators. Lawmakers of both parties say ethics reform is a priority this year.
Calls for overhauling the state’s weak ethics laws were renewed last year after former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned and pleaded guilty to seven counts of violating state ethics laws in a 2010 campaign scheme that inflated his support. Prosecutors say he gave $75,000 of his own money to people who then gave it back to him as individual contributions, then tried to unlawfully reimburse himself by buying personal items such as a flat-screen TV with money from his campaign account.
Later last year, the House Ethics Committee twice voted to clear Haley of allegations that she lobbied for two former employers while a House member and did not disclose a consulting job on financial forms.
Haley repeatedly said – and the committee agreed – that nothing in state law required her to report her job with an engineering firm and that it was impossible for her actions to be considered lobbying under the law’s definition. Haley agreed with legislators that state ethics laws are too vague and gray, and last fall came out with her own proposals for reform, including greater disclosure.
Recommendations in the report issued Monday include requiring all public officials to disclose their private employers, and in certain cases, to specify their income, such as when the employer is seeking a government contract.
Asked why not require the sources and amounts of all income, McMaster said that might discourage people from seeking or staying in office.
“People are entitled to some amount of privacy,” he said.
The group recommends removing House and Senate ethics committees’ authority to handle complaints against their own members. That authority would transfer to the state Ethics Commission, which currently handles complaints against all other elected officials.
A new Public Integrity Unit would investigate allegations of criminal misconduct. Attorney General Alan Wilson has been advocating for the unit, which pools the resources of his office, the commission, the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division, the Department of Revenue and inspector general’s office.
The panel also wants the commission to begin randomly auditing campaign filings to ensure compliance.
The commission’s director has said he would need more staff to take on the extra duties, saying the agency barely has enough to operate now.
Medlock said funding is key to ensuring that the recommendations lead to a more accountable government.
“Without funding, you have a report full of tinkling bells sounding in fury and signifying nothing,” he said.
The group said additional lobbyist fees could fund the commission’s needs. It suggests increasing annual fees from $100 and requiring that those who advocate for clients before local governments – including school boards and city councils – also register with the commission and pay the fees. Currently, only those lobbying state offices and agencies must register.
Some recommendations already have support in the Legislature.
Last Thursday, the House GOP study panel recommended drafting legislation that would set up the Public Integrity Unit and take away House and Senate ethics panels’ ability to handle complaints against their colleagues. That panel also called for eventually eliminating the House and Senate ethics panels following a constitutional referendum.
The recommendation to require a quicker turnaround on public-records requests and bar excessive fees mimics a bill before a House subcommittee. Monday’s report goes a step further in removing the open-records exemption for legislators’ correspondence.