Amended bill would make major changes to the way in which ethics violations against members of the General Assembly are investigated.
By Paul Gable
A S.C. Senate sub-committee Tuesday made major changes to an ethics reform bill the House had rushed through last week to meet the May 1 crossover deadline for legislation.
The amended bill would make major changes to the way in which ethics violations against members of the General Assembly are investigated as well as requiring new income source disclosure for public officials throughout the state.
The amended legislation takes investigation of allegations of ethics violations against House and Senate members out of the hands of legislative committees and puts a revamped state Ethics commission in charge of all ethics investigations.
The House bill proposed elimination of the House and Senate Ethics committees, replacing them with a Joint Committee on Ethics, a body that would include eight legislators and eight members of the public chosen by legislators.
Ethics investigations of legislators would have effectively remained in the control of legislators with this committee.
The proposed Senate amendment replaces the Joint Committee with a revamped state Ethics Commission composed of eight members, four appointed by the governor and two each chosen by the House and Senate.
The current House and Senate Ethics committees would remain, but their only power would be to publicly determine how to proceed against members for non-criminal violations after the commission has determined probable cause of a violation has occurred.
Investigations of General Assembly members would be outside the legislative body and may amount to real investigations for a change.
The state Ethics commission would conduct all investigations of ethics violation allegations against public officials throughout the state. Those where probable cause of a criminal violation is found will be referred to the Attorney General. The revamped state Ethics commission would maintain control of all investigations and punishment of public officials not members of the General Assembly.
Another important change to current law would require public officials to disclose their sources of income including private contracts as well as who pays their spouses and business. The amounts will remain confidential, but disclosure of the source is an important step forward.
The downside of all this is the bill probably won’t become law this year. Even if the Senate passes the amended version of the bill before the end of the legislative year, it is difficult to see enough time left for a conference committee to hammer out a version that could pass both houses before sine die.
Since this is the first year of the legislative session, the bill would remain active when the General Assembly reconvenes next January, but would have to maintain the desire of members to finish the job of final passage of the new ethics reform bill.