COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House expanded its ethics committee Tuesday to have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, with both sides touting the change as a step toward balanced ethics reform.
The House voted during its organizational session to add four members to the Ethics Committee.
Under the new rule, the committee will consist of five members of each party, though Republicans, the majority, get to choose the chairman. It now matches the makeup of the Senate Ethics Committee.
House Minority Leader Harry Ott said ethics reform was high on voters’ minds, and it was important to reach a bipartisan consensus on ethics during the House’s first day back in Columbia. The regular session starts Jan. 8.
“This takes us in the right direction in positive ethics reform and good government,” said Ott, D-St. Matthews, just before the House took a voice vote. A balanced ethics committee was the top priority for a Democratic caucus panel studying ethics reform, he said.
The House Ethics Committee had consisted of five Republicans and one Democrat.
After the full House adjourned, the newly elected committee chose former Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, as chairman. Bingham called it a good first step in ethics reform.
“There’s nothing partisan about ethics,” he said about the equal split. “This is not a cure-all. With a balanced committee, it’s one step to set the stage for other reforms.”
It doesn’t rule out abolishing the committee entirely, he said. But that would require changing the constitution, and the question couldn’t even go to voters until the 2014 general election. In the meantime, the House needed to add some balance, he said.
State law said the House and Senate ethics committees handle complaints against their members, while the state Ethics Commission handles complaints against all other public officials.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and others have suggested getting rid of the legislative panels and letting the state commission handle all complaints. Critics have likened the current model as the fox guarding the hen house.
Being on the committee had been a low-profile job until earlier this year, when members for the first time investigated a sitting governor. They twice cleared Haley of accusations she lobbied for two former employers while serving as a House member.
Rep. Mike Pitts, the only member of the former six-member committee who is returning, said the committee did not operate in a partisan manner before but he agreed the lopsided breakdown didn’t look good.
“The numbers gave a perception of that,” said Pitts, R-Laurens.
In Haley’s case, the one Democrat cast the only dissenting vote on one of four counts, regarding whether Haley should have disclosed her employer on ethics forms. Votes on the other three charges went unanimously in Haley’s favor, as committee members said the state’s ethics laws were too vague and should be reformed.
But the issue was central to the defeat of Rep. Joan Brady, a former member of the committee. Newly elected Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Columbia, was elected after hammering Brady for voting to clear Haley, as she repeatedly linked the two in campaign ads.
An ethics complaint is expected to be filed with the committee against House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, who was re-elected Tuesday with no opposition to the post he’s held since 2005. Harrell told reporters Tuesday none had been filed to date.
John Crangle of Common Cause said his group was waiting for the new ethics committee to be selected. He wants the panel to forward the complaint directly to the attorney general’s office, citing a conflict of interest. The attorney general’s office has previously declined to look into the matter.
A Post and Courier report in September raised allegations that Harrell couldn’t account for money withdrawn from his campaign, after pointing to generic descriptions Harrell gave on quarterly campaign filings to explain his reimbursements.
Harrell has repeatedly said he followed state ethics law, which requires that forms provide a “brief description” of each expense, and that he retained records of his expenses. Harrell, a pilot, has also been criticized for reimbursing himself from his campaign for flying his plane to political and legislative functions. State law provides no guidance for politicians on reimbursing themselves for their personal planes.