MYRTLE BEACH — Gov. Nikki Haley’s plane touched down at Myrtle Beach International Airport’s general aviation terminal at precisely 11:02 a.m. on Wednesday.
It was one of several stops the governor, along with Attorney General Alan Wilson, was making across the state Wednesday to deliver a message of ethics reform.
Recently, South Carolina has come under fire for lax ethics and open-records laws.
A State Integrity Investigation gave the state an “F” grade and ranked it 45th out of all 50 states.
“This should be the year of ethics reform,” Haley said.
The governor’s ethics reform package includes requiring all candidates for public office – whether incumbent or challenger – to file the same forms for candidacy; strengthening recusal requirements for legislators appearing before boards on behalf of private clients; expanding the State Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction to include members of the General Assembly and doing away with the legislative ethics committees; requiring elected officials to disclose all sources of income; and applying the Freedom of Information Act to all branches of government.
On income disclosure, Haley said it’s an issue that staff has been working on for months. She waited until her own ethics issues were cleared up before proposing the reform.
A recent ethics investigation into Haley cleared the Lexington Republican of wrongdoing, reaffirming state law that the former state representative was not required to tell anyone that, as an S.C. House member, she had a consulting contract with a Midlands engineering firm that did millions of dollars worth of work for the state.
“After what I went through, I want to make sure that no one else goes through what I went through, and that there is a fairness to it and accountability to it, and a way to strengthen that,” Haley said.
“You just report it all.”
Wilson talked of working with the executive branch to form the Public Integrity Unit, which would be an alliance of the State Law Enforcement Division, State Ethics Commission, Department of Revenue and others. This unit would handle all legislative investigations and share resources and intelligence.
The attorney general said there’s never a situation where an entity should investigate themselves.
“You don’t want a situation where you have the fox guarding the hen house,” Wilson said.
Haley, who declined to answer questions Wednesday from one reporter, expects the singular ethics commission, along with the other points of her proposed ethics reform, to be addressed during the upcoming legislative session in January.
During a press conference Wednesday, Gina Smith from The State newspaper asked the governor a question on ethics reform and Haley said "Gina, I am not going to answer any of your questions," and moved on to take other reporters’ questions, according to a report by WIS TV.
Smith the governor is unhappy with her because of some of the reporter’s stories, including a tax probe at her parents’ Sikh Temple and her daughter’s summer job.
For some Democratic lawmakers, Haley’s proposals were nothing more than a publicity stunt.
“When House Democrats introduced sweeping ethics reform ... this year, you could hear a pin drop in the Governor’s office. I’m happy to work with the Governor to clean up the culture in Columbia, but her actions will have to speak louder than her words,” said Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston.
As Haley and Wilson criss-crossed the Palmetto State via airplane to discuss ethics reform, others on the ground began forming their own opinions on the proposal.
“This is a big, systemic problem in our state that won’t be solvable with a few political talking points,” said Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council.
Landess asked why the governor hasn’t reached out to other grassroots organizations that have been doing research for years on ethics reform.
She said Haley hit on some issues that the policy council identified a while ago. Landess liked the income disclosure portion of the governor’s reform, but said it has to be done right.
A lot of legislators complain that they can’t reveal income because of client confidentiality, Landess said, but stressed that no one’s asking them to disclose confidential doings.
“If you work for a private investigator company, you probably shouldn’t run for office,” she said.
Landess also supported the plan to have the ethics commission take on the larger roll of policing everyone in the legislature.
“The key to that is transparency and full, open processes,” she said.
However, when it came to filing as a political candidate, Landess said that wasn’t about ethics reform, and the governor blew it.
“That was about fixing a bad law, that’s all,” she said.
Before the June primaries, a S.C. Supreme Court ruling created confusion and led to the removal of more than 200 candidates – including almost 20 in Horry County – statewide, none of whom were incumbents.
Whether the election filing process or other ethics issues will be fixed won’t be known until the next legislative session.
Contact BRAD DICKERSON at 626-0301.