House GOP panel drafting overhaul of ethics panels

  • Posted: Friday, January 25, 2013 12:28 a.m.

COLUMBIA — Legislators would no longer handle complaints against their own members under recommendations of a House GOP study panel.

The Republican panel decided Thursday to draft legislation sending ethics complaints to a revamped state Ethics Commission. House and Senate Ethics committees would handle upfront only administrative tasks, such as fining members for filing forms late. That’s for the near term, anyway.

The House panel recommends eventually abolishing the legislative panels after putting the question to voters in 2014.

“I think that’s the direction the public expects us to head,” said Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, adding, “We heard your complaints.”

It would be a bigger step for the chamber that last month voted to expand its ethics committee from six members to 10 – five from each party. Critics feared that meant the committees would stay in place. But it’s early in the process.

The House GOP panel is among several groups making recommendations to reform South Carolina’s weak ethics laws, and its suggestions still must go before the full Republican caucus. House Democrats have their own committee, as do senators. A non-legislative panel created by Gov. Nikki Haley is expected to release its findings on Monday.

Public calls for an overhaul were renewed last year after former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned and pleaded guilty in March to ethics violations, and the House Ethics Committee clearing Haley in June of allegations she illegally lobbied while a House member.

Committee members said then that the laws need overhauling because they’re too vague – a contention Haley agrees with.

Who looks into ethics complaints is a chief concern of critics.

Currently, the legislative ethics panels handle complaints against their members, while the state Ethics Commission handles complaints against all other elected officials. Haley is among those calling for the elimination of the secretive legislative panels, comparing them to a fox guarding the hen house.

But legislators argue the state constitution needs to change to eliminate them, since one clause specifies that each chamber is responsible for punishing its members.

Under the House bill being drafted, all complaints would go to a re-formed state Ethics Commission. If it finds probable cause that a violation occurred, the complaint would be sent to a newly formed Public Integrity Unit for investigation.

At least until 2015, the unit, organized in the attorney general’s office, would then send its findings back to the legislative ethics panels to hold public hearings and mete out punishments such as fines and censure. Any serious criminal findings would also go before the state grand jury for possible prosecution.

If the constitutional referendum passes, the state Ethics Commission would take up all the duties of the House and Senate panels. Whether the commission could take on the added duties will be a point of debate. Commission officials have testified they’d need additional people, saying they barely have enough to operate now.

Transferring the investigation process to the Public Integrity Unit – made up of the attorney general’s office, State Law Enforcement Division, Department of Revenue and inspector general’s office – ensures a thorough investigation from people with the resources and experience to do so, said Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, the GOP panel’s chairman.

Investigations by legislative panels are limited to the work of their small staff, Smith said.

Handing over investigations to the multi-jurisdictional unit also removes concerns over legislators’ conflicts of interest and influence over decisions, said Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington.

Smith’s panel will meet again next week to come up with recommendations on other ethics issues. He hopes to have legislation by early February.

Currently, the governor appoints all members of the state Ethics Commission. Smith’s group wants to change that to the governor appointing four, and the Senate and House each electing two. At least two would have to be attorneys.

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