COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s House Republican and Democratic leaders said Wednesday that study committees would be looking for ways to strengthen the state’s ethics laws.
House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, and House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-St. Matthews, said they would each appoint a panel charged with coming up with proposed legislation for the new session, which begins in January. The committees will be separate, but Bingham and Ott said they will collaborate. State senators are also planning their own study of ethics reform.
In a statement, House Speaker Bobby Harrell praised the efforts.
“These reforms and added transparency efforts will help ensure the public that our ethics laws are being followed and enforced, therefore making it much more difficult for members to be unfairly attacked for actually complying with the law,” said Harrell.
Last month, Harrell’s campaign spending came under fire after The Post and Courier reported that the powerful Charleston Republican had been vague in reporting reimbursements from his campaign account. Harrell was adamant he had done nothing improper, showing The Associated Press documents to back up his assertions.
On Monday, John Crangle of Common Cause asked the House Ethics Committee to waive its jurisdiction and allow legal authorities to investigate Harrell’s campaign spending. Harrell’s office has said he won’t comment further on the matter, and state law bars committee members from publicly discussing a complaint unless probable cause of a violation is found.
Gov. Nikki Haley has also said she wanted ethics reform to be a legislative priority. In August, she and Attorney General Alan Wilson – both Republicans – traveled the state, touting a reform package that would abolish the legislative ethics panels, saying that having House and Senate members handle legislative ethics complaints is “the fox guarding the henhouse.”
Instead, Haley said the State Ethics Commission should handle all ethics complaints against public officials – a change that would require a constitutional amendment.
Haley also proposed removing legislators’ exemptions from the open records law, requiring elected officials to fully disclose their income and requiring lawyer-legislators to recuse themselves from votes that elect judges.
Legislative leaders quickly derided the fly-around as hypocritical. The launch came two months after the House Ethics Committee cleared Haley of allegations that she illegally lobbied for an engineering firm and a hospital while a House member, benefited from lobbyists donating to the hospital’s foundation, and should have disclosed consulting income from the firm with state contracts.
It was the second time in two months the Republican-dominated committee cleared her, saying ethics laws are too ambiguous. Haley has repeatedly said there’s nothing wrong with asking lobbyists to donate to a nonprofit – especially since she didn’t work on commission – and that it was impossible under the state definition for her to lobby for an agency regulation. She said she didn’t report the income from Wilbur Smith because state law doesn’t require it.
On Wednesday, Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said the governor looked forward to working toward achieving needed reforms.
“Ethics reform is badly needed, and anything that moves the ball forward is good news,” Godfrey said.
–––Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP