COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley announced Thursday the creation of an independent panel to make recommendations for overhauling South Carolina’s ethics laws, saying its report should serve as legislators’ blueprint.
Her executive order forming the state Commission on Ethics Reform comes as House and Senate members are working separately on their own ethics reform plans. Haley applauded their efforts but said experts outside of public office need to weigh in. Otherwise, the public will be skeptical of a law crafted by legislators to oversee themselves, she said.
“This is the cleanest, clearest, best way to get ethics reform in South Carolina,” Haley said. “We’ve seen too many elected officials put under the ethics cloud.”
That includes the Republican governor, who agrees with critics that South Carolina’s ethics laws are too vague. The group must report its recommendations to lawmakers by Jan. 28.
Haley said three months is already a quick turn-around, and she didn’t want to further rush the panel. But its findings will come three weeks after the session starts. Legislators hope to introduce their plans by opening day.
“We would like to move the legislation as early as we can,” said Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, chairman of the House GOP Caucus’ panel on the issue, adding that he welcomes the commission’s input. The House’s Democratic caucus has a separate study group.
Questions raised this year over lawmakers’ actions, along with how alleged violations are reviewed, have made ethics reform a top priority for 2013. In March, Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned as he pleaded guilty to ethics violations.
When the House Ethics Committee cleared Haley in June of allegations she lobbied for two employers while a member of the House, members cited vagueness in the law and vowed to craft legislation to close loopholes.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell has also come under fire recently over $280,000 he reimbursed himself from his campaign over the last four years, largely for flights he piloted on his own plane to legislative and political functions. The questions stemmed from vague explanations on his ethics filings. But Harrell has repeatedly said he complied with state law, which requires reports give a “brief description” of campaign expenses. The law gives no guidance on personal plane reimbursements.
“We have to acknowledge the fact that we have weak ethics laws. They’re very gray,” Haley said Thursday.
Reform is needed not only to shore up public trust but also to give lawmakers better guidance, she said.
“The point is to make the line very clear,” former Attorney General Henry McMaster, who is a co-chairman of the panel along with former Democratic Attorney General Travis Medlock.
Haley appointed eight of the panel’s 11 volunteer members, which also include two appointed by the chairmen of the House and Senate ethics committees. No one on the panel is currently in elected office.
Medlock was attorney general during the FBI’s “Operation Lost Trust” of 1990, which ended with 27 convictions or guilty pleas of state legislators and lobbyists.
The ethics reform that resulted from that scandal also resulted from many groups working together, said Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Wes Hayes, who is working on the Senate’s reform plan. He expects the Senate panel to hold public hearings after the election but praised the bi-partisan, independent effort as giving a different perspective.
“Having one outside the Legislature to work on this is a good thing,” said Hayes, R-Rock Hill.
While ethics reform promises to be hotly debated next year, critics worry that changes ultimately passed by the Legislature will lack teeth.
The director of a government watchdog group said he hopes the commission’s proposal is aggressive.
“We need drastic reforms,” said John Crangle of Common Cause, who’s long advocated for campaign finance reform. The danger, he said, is that a good report gets sabotaged through the legislative process, if it’s taken up at all.
Crangle noted he served on a similar commission for campaign finance reform during former Gov. Jim Hodge’s tenure, and its report went nowhere.