S.C. House approves ethics reform package

COLUMBIA (AP) — The South Carolina House on Tuesday passed an ethics reform package that lawmakers of both parties hailed as substantially improving the oversight of politicians and allowing voters to see where candidates get their money. The bill was approved by a 113-7 vote.

It would require public officials to disclose all sources of their income.

This includes private businesses. It would also end the pre-election blackout period for reporting campaign donations that allows candidates to hide who’s backing their campaigns until after an election.

During the 20-day period before an election, campaigns would have to electronically report the name, address and amount from each donor contributing more than $250. The electronic report, which is accessible to public viewing online, must be made within 48 hours of receiving the contribution.

“It’s the most significant reform bill since Lost Trust,” said Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, referring to the FBI’s 1990 operation that resulted in 27 convictions or guilty pleas of state legislators and lobbyists.

A routine vote on Wednesday would send the bill to the Senate, meeting a legislative deadline that allows for passage this year.

Legislators have scrambled over the last week to negotiate a compromise that could pass. Tweaks continued even as House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister took the podium to explain his all-encompassing amendment. In the end, there was little debate on the floor.

Bannister said he worked to keep members from “playing games” with floor amendments that could kill the effort.

“It’s tough and fair. I think it’s a victory for the people of South Carolina,” said Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Columbia, who won office last November on an ethics reform platform.

Some critics contend the bill doesn’t go far enough. Rather than transfer oversight of legislative campaign filings to the state Ethics Commission, it instead creates a joint House-Senate ethics committee composed of eight legislators and eight people they select -- with Republicans and Democrats equally represented.

Ashley Landess of the South Carolina Policy Council said the hybrid committee is worse, not better.

“They did nothing to end the self-policing,” she said. “That’s the deal breaker for calling this real reform.”

Currently, separate House and Senate ethics committees handle complaints against their own members. Even legislators who advocated abolishing the panels said the joint committee represents a better, more independent system than the status quo.

“The bottom line is, what was done today was what was possible,” Smith said. “We didn’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the possible.”

John Crangle of Common Cause said the joint committee idea, which he suggested several years ago, works because senators would be more willing to scrutinize House members, and vice versa. Adding members of the public is also an improvement, he said.

“It’s not essential to let the state Ethics Commission handle discipline,” said Crangle, who’s been pushing for reform for decades. He acknowledged that any measure removing that authority from legislators completely would likely die.

Under the bill, allegations of criminal misconduct would be forwarded to a new Public Integrity Unit for investigation. Attorney General Alan Wilson has been advocating for the multi-agency unit, which pools the resources of his office, the ethics commission, the State Law Enforcement Division, the Department of Revenue and the inspector general’s office.

The bill would also:

--Define campaign committees in an attempt to eliminate the loophole that allows groups to spend money on elections without identifying themselves or their donors.

--Extend the regulation of lobbyists to local governments and school districts.

--Extend to the subcommittee level when legislators with a conflict of interest must recuse themselves from voting.

--Prohibit legislative leaders with political action committees from contributing to public officials. Critics contend so-called “leadership PACs” increase politicians’ power by making lawmakers they donate to feel beholden to them.

A spokesman for Republican Gov. Nikki Haley said she’ll work to further strengthen the measure as it moves through the Senate. The push for ethics reform was renewed last year by allegations that Haley illegally lobbied for employers while she was a House member. She successfully defended herself before the House Ethics Committee, agreeing with legislators that the laws are too vague.

“This bill represents the most important reform to our ethics code in more than two decades, and the governor appreciates the House making sure it passed before tomorrow’s deadline,” said spokesman Rob Godfrey. “She has long said that this year is the year for true ethics reform in South Carolina, and today puts us well on our way to having a government that our citizens can be proud of.”

S.C. House approves ethics reform package