By Paul Gable
Ethics reform took a big hit in the S.C. Senate last week when senators voted to essentially keep ethics investigations in-house.
A bill (S.1) that would have allowed investigations of ethics complaints against members of the S.C. General Assembly to be investigated by a reconstituted S.C. Ethics Commission failed to get enough support to move forward.
Sen. Luke Rankin, Chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, offered an amendment that would have established a panel consisting of a majority of legislators and a few members of the public (for window dressing) instead of the independent panel advocated in the bill’s original language.
After a long debate, senators voted down the ethics reform bill authored by Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens. In a touch of irony, Martin voted against his much changed bill in the final vote.
What must be remembered is that the current S.C. Ethics Law was a reaction to the Lost Trust scandal at the statehouse nearly 25 years ago.
By creating the House and Senate ethics committees, the legislators virtually guaranteed that they could keep a lid on future scandals.
The S.C. Senate does not want ethics reform. It is too comfortable with the way things are handled in Columbia now.
In truth, a majority of S.C. House members probably do not want real ethics reform either. The House has bills that skirt the edges of ethics reform this session instead of one omnibus ethics reform bill.
Some House members, however, apparently feel a need to pass something that can be called ethics reform after being embarrassed by the scandal that took former House Speaker Bobby Harrell down last year.
Until Harrell’s misuse of campaign funds exploded into headlines last year, the concept of in-house investigations by committees of the respective houses in the legislature worked very well in containing ethics problems from becoming public.
It’s no wonder the legislators do not want to give up investigation of ethics complaints to a totally independent body. There is no protection for their dalliances with unethical behavior if they do.
Apparently to most members of the S.C. General Assembly, an ethics problem that the public doesn’t hear about is no ethics problem at all.
And, there is always the problem that legislators, most of whom are unopposed in their respective districts, would have problems spending their stuffed campaign chests on their personal businesses, foreign vacations, various mementoes and other personal expenses if a true, independent investigation panel was looking over their shoulders.