By Paul Gable
An Ethics Reform Bill, which flew through the S.C. House with only one dissenting vote in three readings, appears designed to discourage the filing of ethics complaints.
H.3184 could put citizens at substantial risk, possibly facing both criminal and civil charges, depending on the whim of a newly constituted State Ethics Commission.
Called the Ethics Reform Act, the devil is again in the details of the legislation. The bill creates a new State Ethics Commission and ultimately grants investigation of ethics complaints against House or Senate members to that new body.
Pertinent provisions of the bill are as follows:
The new State Ethics Commission shall consist of 12 members. Four of those members will be appointed by the governor, two elected by the House of Representatives, two elected by the Senate and four elected by the Supreme Court.
Members chosen by the governor may be removed by the governor for malfeasance, misfeasance, incompetency, absenteeism, conflicts of interest, misconduct, persistent neglect of duty in office, or incapacity.
Those chosen by the House and Senate may be removed for malfeasance, misfeasance, incompetency, absenteeism, conflicts of interest, misconduct, persistent neglect of duty in office, or incapacity upon a finding by two-thirds of the membership of the appropriate body.”
There is no provision for removing members elected by the Supreme Court.
The House or Senate Ethics Committee shall receive complaints filed against members by individuals. Upon majority vote of the total membership of the committee, the committee shall file complaints when alleged violations are identified and refer those complaints to the State Ethics Commission for investigation.
If the State Ethics Commission finds a complaint to be groundless, it reports back to the respective ethics committee, which may concur or nonconcur with the finding.
And, here’s the real kicker:
“If the commission finds that the complaining party wilfully filed a groundless complaint, the finding must be reported to the Attorney General and to the appropriate ethics committee. The wilful filing of a groundless complaint is a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, the person must be fined not more than one thousand dollars or imprisoned not more than one year. In addition to the criminal penalty provided by this item, the appropriate ethics committee may assess a civil penalty of not more than one thousand dollars against the complainant upon proof by a preponderance of the evidence that the filing of the complaint was groundless, wilful and without just cause or with malice.”
The terms “wilfull” and “groundless” are not defined in the legislation making them open to virtually any definition the commission members deem them to be.
Therefore, a citizen can file a complaint. The complaint can be found to contain alleged violations upon majority vote of the House or Senate Ethics Committee and sent to the State Ethics Commission for investigation. That investigation can find the complaint to have been willfully groundless, upon its own determination and all of a sudden the citizen can be the one facing criminal charges and civil penalties.
You can see how this supposed ethics reform could have a chilling effect on any citizen considering filing an ethics complaint against a member of the S.C. General Assembly.
Instead of true ethics reform, it appears to be another attempt to protect the actions of members of the S.C. General Assembly from scrutiny by the public.