We'll take real reform any we can get it

info@islandpacket.comAugust 26, 2012 

South Carolinians should be grateful for any signs that officials mean what they say about reforming the state's weak ethics laws.

Whether Gov. Nikki Haley is motivated by her own ethics problems, political grandstanding or a true zeal for reform, we welcome her push for stronger rules. But we'll hold the applause until we see the final product from lawmakers.

And if we get laws that bring more information to the public, curb potentially bad behavior by officials and ensure that wrongdoing is called out and dealt with in an open and fair way, we can also thank attorney John Rainey and his dogged pursuit of alleged wrongdoing by Haley as a member of the House. His lawsuit is now headed to the state Supreme Court after Haley was cleared by the House Ethics Committee.

Among the items in Haley's package of reforms is doing away with the Senate and House ethics panels and turning over their work to the state Ethics Commission. Particularly interesting was her comment Wednesday that lawmakers' handling complaints about other lawmakers is like "the fox guarding the henhouse." Given her recent experience, she speaks with some authority.

The political potshots that followed Haley's and Attorney General Alan Wilson's tour Wednesday to promote the reforms package, especially from House Speaker Bobby Harrell, is not all that surprising. It illustrates the sour relationship between the legislature and Haley.

Key lawmakers already have been working on ethics reforms this summer. Haley might be trying to jump on their bandwagon, but if it's headed in the right direction and her efforts help get the job done, lawmakers should welcome her support. And we fully recognize that Haley has taken advantage of some of the laws she now says she wants to change.

Her plan also calls for:

  • Requiring the legislature to comply with the state's open records law. The fact that lawmakers are exempt from sharing correspondence and other documents with the public is ridiculous. They should be held to the same standards as all other officials.

  • Requiring incumbents and challengers seeking office to file the same election paperwork. This stems from this year's primary fiasco. A bill that passed the Senate, but stalled in the House in May, takes care of this issue and puts candidate filings in the hands of county election officials, rather than party officials.

  • Requiring public officials to fully disclose their sources of income. Officials now must report only income earned from any government source, either paid to the official or a member of his or her immediate family, as well as compensation from any business or individual if that business or individual does business with a government agency. That's a very narrow set of circumstances and does little to tell the public where potential conflicts of interest lie.

  • Prohibiting lawmakers who are lawyers from appearing before certain boards on behalf of their clients. Under the current law, The (Columbia) State newspaper reports, lawyer-lawmakers may vote at the committee level on the confirmation of members to the Workers' Compensation Commission and Department of Health and Environmental Control Board and then appear before those boards to advocate for a client.

  • Wilson wants to set up a public integrity unit to investigate, not rule on, ethics complaints. He said that such a body would prevent duplicate investigations by different agencies. If it is truly independent, gets at the truth of what's going on and the public is apprised of its work, we support it.

    Those changes are a start, but only a start. We'd also like to see lawmakers:

  • Establish an appeals process when a records request is denied.

  • Establish meaningful sanctions for not complying with the open records law.

  • Limit how much the public can be charged to answer a records request and shorten the time to answer such requests.

  • Set out clearer rules on public officials helping family and friends get taxpayer-funded jobs.

  • John Crangle of Common Cause says lawmakers also should tackle campaign finance reform.

    In the end, it doesn't matter who gets credit as long as the work gets done and the end product means something.

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