COLUMBIA–The latest version of an ethics reform bill passed by the South Carolina House on Wednesday would create an independent commission to investigate complaints against all publicly elected officials and judges.
Representatives voted 110-0 to return the amended measure to the Senate. Currently, House and Senate ethics committees oversee campaign filings of their members, while the State Ethics Commission handles complaints against all other elected officials, and the judicial branch has its own disciplinary system.
The bill would create a 12-member super ethics commission to investigate all allegations of misconduct. Its findings would be forwarded back to the legislative panels, state commission or Supreme Court for disciplinary action on civil violations. Possible criminal violations would go to the attorney general’s office.
Critics calling for reform favor abolishing the legislative ethics panels completely, saying legislators can’t adequately police their colleagues. But many legislators point to a clause in the state constitution that says each chamber is responsible for punishing its members. House members contend their proposal avoids conflicting with that clause.
The new commission’s members would be appointed by legislators, the Supreme Court, and the governor. The bill bars former campaign donors, government officials and family members of elected officials from appointment.
The bill also proposes creating a committee of attorneys with criminal trial experience to determine what ethic violations would be criminal and require prosecution.
Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, said reform is needed to instill public confidence and to help officeholders know whether they are in compliance with ethic laws.
The legislation would require officeholders and their immediate family members to disclose on campaign filings four years’ worth of income sources, but not the amount. Elected officials would have 30 days to correct unintentional mistakes in campaign financial reports to avoid potential misdemeanor charges.
The bill is expected to head to a House-Senate committee for a compromise. Its prospects could be slim. The Senate version of the bill makes no change in how ethics complaints are handled. Senators have insisted they have proved they can police their own.
Gov. Nikki Haley welcomed the legislation’s advancement but remained critical.
“It’s time for the Senate to join the House in making sure legislators are no longer investigating themselves or keeping their income secret,” said her spokesman, Doug Mayer.
House Judiciary Chairman Greg Delleney, R-Chester, said the bipartisan bill is needed to update South Carolina’s 23-year-old ethics law.
“As technology changes and as the demands of public service change, it is critical that we make these reforms,” Delleney said.
The proposal would also reconstitute the State Ethics Commission, as suggested by Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston. Currently, all nine members are appointed by the governor. The proposal would give that responsibility to elected executive officials.