Ethics reform could use more focused approach

info@islandpacket.comDecember 2, 2012 

If the number of groups looking at how to reform South Carolina's ethics laws indicates the likelihood of substantive changes, we're in luck.

At last count, five different committees were studying ethics reform.

But it also could lead to too many solutions coming from too many quarters and no consolidated push for reform that will identify, prevent and punish bad behavior by public officials.

The various groups have started holding hearings, and given the wide range of suggestions so far, it's clear that reform is in the eye of the beholder.

Many will point to all this committee activity and say, "See, we're serious about reform." But we don't need hand-wringing and political posturing; we need new rules.

Of all the issues raised in the past year, three stand out:

  • Requiring lawmakers to report all of their income and its sources.

  • Setting up independent review of ethics complaints against lawmakers (no more self-policing by House and Senate committees). That could include establishing under the law a "Public Integrity Unit" to investigate public corruption, a push by state Attorney General Alan Wilson.

  • Making lawmakers subject to the state's Freedom of Information Act, just like every other public official in the state.

  • The first would allow us to better gauge the why of lawmakers' actions. It would make it easier to know when to cry foul if a lawmaker doesn't remove himself from a vote or a debate that affects someone with whom they have monetary relationship. At the very least, we would be watching what happens with much more information than we have today.

    The second would restore some confidence in the process of investigating possible ethics violations by a House or Senate member. One of the more disturbing aspects of the inquiry into Gov. Nikki Haley's actions as a House member was her defense that if she were guilty of wrongdoing, so, too, were many other lawmakers. Self-policing is a farce under those circumstances.

    The third would open up documents and proceedings now closed to outsiders. Why shouldn't lawmakers' correspondence, emails and other documents dealing with the public's business be subject to perusal? Why should they be exempt from rules every other public official, including the governor, must follow?

    Wilson wants lawmakers to pass a law formalizing a new group set up to investigate public corruption. He said that such a body would prevent duplicate investigations by different agencies and help speed up the investigation process. 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.

    The Public Integrity Unit includes the Attorney General's Office, the S.C State Law Enforcement Division, state Ethics Commission the state Department of Revenue and state Inspector General. Members of the unit have met three times to organize but have not pursued any cases.

    Wilson says he needs a law to set thresholds for investigations, subpoenas and the sharing of information among agencies. He also says he doesn't want to create a new agency, but wants agreements for the state agencies in the unit to dedicate employees to investigate allegations of public corruption.

    "It gives five agencies cover should they have to investigate a very powerful policymaker or lawmaker," Wilson said. "I want to take the politics out of it. I want to make sure everyone is held accountable equally."

    All very laudable goals that should be supported by lawmakers. We'll find out soon enough whether they are as committed to reform as they say they are. It is up to them to get something done, and the public should hold them to their pledges to set things right.

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