The fundamental flaws in South Carolina’s ethics enforcement system have been blatantly revealed this year, and are illustrated again with the allegations made against Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell.
His political opponents are accusing Harrell of transferring too much money from his campaign treasury to his personal accounts.
Harrell claims he has only reimbursed himself properly for campaign and official expenses.
He has provided The Associated Press with documentation to back up his statements.
John Crangle of Common Cause, a public watchdog group, told The State newspaper that he will file an ethics complaint against Harrell.
Where will Crangle file that complaint?
With the House Ethics Committee.
State law puts that body in charge of evaluating and investigating all complaints against House members.
If a citizen wishes to lodge a complaint against a senator, the Senate Ethics Committee will look into it – maybe.
Even the most politically naive can see the problem with this system. House members, who are led by Harrell, will investigate his conduct. House members are beholden to the speaker.
They depend on his good will to get good committee assignments, to bring up their bills, to place their bills in good committees. The speaker has tremendous power to sideline a lawmaker or a lawmaker’s agenda if he is so inclined.
This fact will be on the minds of those evaluating Crangle’s complaint. That’s what makes House members a terrible choice to investigate ethics charges against the speaker of the house. But this committee is still a bad choice when the charges involve any lawmaker.
Lawmakers should not be allowed to investigate each other, to do so in secret, and to make a final decision in private that is kept secret – all of which is allowed under South Carolina law.
Why is this permitted?Because lawmakers wrote the law that way.
When lawmakers start a new session in January, they should approve a bill that transfers jurisdiction over ethical complaints about lawmakers to the State Ethics Commission, the same body that investigates complaints about other public officials. If that commission is good enough for local officials and the governor, it should be good enough for lawmakers.
The next time you see your House member or senator campaigning for re-election, ask him whether he’ll vote for such a law.
Put him or her on the spot and demand a reasonable ethics enforcement process for lawmakers.