Investigation and punishment of South Carolina’s legislators who may have violated ethics laws, which are criminal laws like any others, are left to the legislator’s colleagues. Those colleagues do not have adequate staffs of investigators, often have little legal background themselves, can be influenced by personal or partisan interests, and have incentives to protect the institution of which they are a part rather than the state’s citizens. In some cases they have a particularly strong conflict of interest – weak enforcement of ethics laws protects them personally while they enrich themselves by taking money from special interests.
Any claim of ethics reform is a lie until this changes, and changes completely. When we look at the array of issues underlying our current abysmally weak enforcement, it becomes clear that there is only one adequate solution. We must treat members of the legislature and their staffs precisely as we do members of the executive branch. We must place all stages of investigation and, when appropriate, punishment, outside the control of the General Assembly. The Ethics Commission should oversee the process of investigation and discipline for both branches of government.
State government already has investigators with a wide range of areas of professional expertise. Five agencies (the attorney general, the inspector general, SLED, the Department of Revenue and the Ethics Commission) have agreed to share resources in ethics investigations through the newly formed Public Integrity Unit. The PIU would provide a sound solution to the need for investigative resources. All of these agencies must be protected from political influence.
The results of investigation must not be sent back to the ethics committees of the Senate and House for decisions. The ethics statutes are criminal laws like any others. We would not ask someone’s co-workers to vote on his punishment for stealing a car. We should not ask members of the General Assembly to vote on whether a colleague will be punished for taking undisclosed money to put their own interests above those of the citizens of South Carolina.
Further, the process must be transparent. Once there is a determination of probable cause, the legal process must become public. Only the sunlight of public information can insure the integrity of the process.
The Constitution of our state reserves to lawmakers the right to punish member for violations of internal rules and the right to remove members from the House and Senate. That is appropriate. The Constitution does not prohibit other agencies from investigating and punishing criminal violations. In fact, under separation of powers, enforcement of any laws is not the business of the legislative branch. Ethics reform bills must assign all investigation and punishment of criminal violations of the ethics laws to bodies outside the legislature.
If these changes are not made in ethics laws, the fox will continue to guard the henhouse and will continue to eat chicken dinners on a regular basis. Those chickens are our legitimate interest as citizens of South Carolina. We must protect them.
The writer lives in Conway.