Lawmakers should not investigate lawmakers

info@islandpacket.comJanuary 5, 2014 

Imagine if those accused of criminal wrongdoing were investigated, not by police, but by their friends. Would anyone be surprised if the accused got off?

It seems a nonsensical scenario, but it's precisely what happens in South Carolina where lawmakers are accused of ethical misconduct. When a complaint is made against a House member, a committee of -- you guessed it -- fellow House members review and decide the case. The same is true in the S.C. Senate where a committee of senators serve as judge and jury over their colleagues. (Cases against statewide elected officials are sent to the State Ethics Commission.)

It's easy to see why lawmakers, wary of scrutiny of their own activities, could turn a blind eye to ethical breaches by their State House friends. Additionally, the House's and Senate's ethics committees that review the cases lack the resources, staffing and expertise to reach conclusions that voters can trust.

While ethics reform, including altering the state's ethics investigative process, has received tremendous lip service from lawmakers in the past couple of years and the number of open ethics cases has piled up, next to nothing has been done to fix the problem.

Now, as lawmakers return to Columbia this month, we urge them to stop this pervasive and corrosive aspect of state government by creating a fair and impartial investigative process. The current setup ensures that only the most egregious cases of ethical lapses are exposed and provides a blanket of darkness that allows lawmakers to continue questionable behavior that tears at the very heart of democracy.

Recent cases prove that wrongdoing is most assuredly going on.

In May, former Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, resigned from the Legislature amidst allegations he spent campaign money at adult stores and on other personal expenses.

Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Woodruff, was recently cleared by his fellow House members of charges that he misused state aircraft. Chumley used the state plane to fly conservative commentator Walter Williams from a Washington airport March 20 to testify for his anti-Obamacare bill even though a clause in the state budget bars state planes from being used to transport anyone to and from legislative meetings.

And the House Ethics Committee is still weighing what to do about Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg, who's is accused of using his campaign account for personal benefit.

Two years ago, a judge sentenced ex-Republican Lt. Gov. Ken Ard to five years' probation and fines after he used campaign funds to buy iPads, clothes and football tickets. That same month, the Center for Public Integrity rightfully gave South Carolina an "F" for its risk of corruption.

So what's the fix? The legislature can start by turning all cases against House members and senators over to the State Ethics Commission. There, cases can receive for an impartial review and judgement made outside of the State House bubble.

More state funding is likely needed to bolster the commission for the important task. They're already busy, investigating cases against statewide lawmakers, including state Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, accused of using campaign money to accompany his girlfriend to the Republican National Convention last year.

Overhauling the ethics investigative process is just the beginning. Other ethics changes, including requiring lawmakers to disclose all sources of income, abolishing leadership PACs and strengthening the states open records laws, should be part of any comprehensive ethics package the General Assembly considers.

It's been 24 years since the state has revised its ethics rules -- a time when some of today's ethically-questionable practices, such as leadership PACs, didn't even exist. It's time for a major overhaul.

To their credit, Gov. Nikki Haley (herself no stranger to allegations of unethical behavior), Attorney General Alan Wilson and others have proposed various ethics reforms. We hope, this year, lawmakers will actually listen.

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