COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley said Tuesday she will push her committee's ethics reform recommendations, whether she agrees with them or not.
Haley told the ethics reform commission she supports whatever it does. She created the panel by executive order in October, saying experts outside of public office should weigh in on an overhaul. Separate House and Senate committees are developing their own plans.
Lawmakers say strengthening the state's weak ethics laws is a top priority for the 2013 session that starts Jan. 8.
“I want people to truly trust their government,” Haley said at the full panel's second public hearing. “What you come out with is what you'll see me push, whether I agree with it or not. I have total faith in you.”
Responding to questions from the group, Haley said she supports requiring public officials to disclose all of their sources on income on campaign filings, as well as the specific amounts received from each. She said an investigation into her own filings made her opinion stronger.
“I actually think it helps the Legislature and the public,” said Haley, who served three terms in the House. “If it's cut and dry, you never have to wonder if you're doing the right thing.”
The House Ethics Committee cleared Haley in June of allegations she lobbied for two former employers while she was a House member. Committee members said then the law was too vague and should be overhauled.
Under state law, House and Senate ethics committees handle complaints against their former and current members, while the state Ethics Commission investigates complaints against all other public officials.
Critics liken the legislative panels to the fox guarding the hen house and call for their elimination.
But Ethics Commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood said Tuesday her already underfunded agency is not pushing for the added duties. The agency survives largely from the fines it collects from candidates who don't file their forms on time. Fines start at $100 for a missed deadline and can climb to $5,000.
“Certainly our hope is that we can stop being in the business of penalizing people,” she said.
But if candidates do better at meeting deadlines and responding to the ensuing letters, the agency will run into revenue problems, she said.
She noted that all ethics violations, except bribery, come with a maximum punishment of one year in jail or a $5,000 fine. Whether candidates fail to disclose one contribution or thousands, or even run a multi-million-dollar business out of their office, they face the same maximum penalty, she said.
Hazelwood said she will submit suggestions for establishing levels of malfeasance under state law.
The ethics reform commission, co-chaired by two former attorneys general – Republican Henry McMaster and Democrat Travis Medlock – is supposed to issue a report with recommendations by the end of January.
That's three weeks after the legislative session starts.