State ethics reform must be meaningful

info@islandpacket.comNovember 20, 2012 

A change in the state constitution might be required to take away ethics oversight of lawmakers from House and Senate committees.

That was the verdict from the dean of the University of South Carolina Law School, who spoke recently to a panel of House Republicans tackling the subject of ethics reform.

Given the cumbersome process of changing the constitution, including a vote by the public in a general election (now two years away), that's not good news.

But if that's what it takes to get an independent, trustworthy review of lawmakers' actions, it should be done. In the meantime, lawmakers should search for other avenues to reach the goal of independent, accountable oversight.

Dean Rob Wilcox points to a section of the constitution that states, in part: "each house shall choose its own officers, determine its rules of procedure, punish its members for disorderly conduct."

Wilcox says that means the House and Senate are the only entities that can punish their members. He suggests the lawmakers set up a commission that would include members of the public to investigate and recommend punishment for violating the rules. Lawmakers would have the final say. He compared it to the system used to discipline lawyers: The Commission on Lawyer Conduct investigates complaints and the state Supreme Court has final say.

But some aren't buying it, and they raise a good point: There's a difference between violating rules and violating the law. They say lawmakers accused of breaking state ethics laws should be investigated by law enforcement instead of their peers.

"Disciplining each other is not the same as investigating violations of state law," Ashley Landess of the S.C. Policy Council said in an interview with The (Columbia) State newspaper. "They don't have the authority to investigate state law in the legislature, period."

The newspaper reports that under state law, the House and Senate ethics committees have to investigate all ethics complaints against lawmakers, including violations of state ethics laws.

The difficulty lies in the fact that violations could be civil or criminal. Law enforcement officials in an impartial investigation should figure that out.

Gov. Nikki Haley has pushed a reform package that includes doing away with the legislative ethics committees and turning the complaints over to the state Ethics Commission. That is a logical move. Ethics complaints against every other public official in the state, including the governor, are handled by the Ethics Commission. Lawmakers should be no different.

The solution -- whether a constitutional change or a change in the law or both -- lies with lawmakers. They should keep in mind that the public wants substantive change in how ethics violations are handled. Window-dressing won't do.

Rules are only as good as their enforcement. And the public should have confidence that rules as important as these are enforced appropriately.

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