It's probably no coincidence that some Democratic lawmakers are moving to open up ethics inquiries into the actions of House and Senate members now that Gov. Nikki Haley may be facing an inquiry into her actions as a House member.
But any steps to open up the secretive process are welcome, no matter the motivation. General Assembly members should be treated like any other public official in the state. Instead, they enjoy the special privilege of closed-door inquiries by their colleagues. No mention is made of an ethics investigation unless the lawmaker is publicly reprimanded, and that is very rare. Longtime Statehouse watcher Cindi Ross Scoppe of The (Columbia) State newspaper states in a recent column that it's happened only twice.
And it's also probably no coincidence that one of Haley's favorite buzzwords -- transparency -- has been attached to the endeavor.
The "Transparency in Ethics Act" would make Senate and House committee investigations of sitting and former lawmakers subject to open records law once it is determined a complaint has merit; records would remain confidential until a committee determines probable cause exists.
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That standard already exists for Ethics Commission investigations of all other public officials. Lawmakers changed the law to make public information about charges when the Ethics Commission finds probable cause after former Gov. Mark Sanford was investigated for his travel and campaign spending in 2009. Before that, the public had to wait until the commission made a final decision unless the person being investigated waived confidentiality.
That relatively new standard is how we know the commission will hold a hearing July 18 on a complaint that Haley's campaign misreported contributions by failing to maintain proper records of donors' occupations and not disclosing contributors' addresses. The commission determined probable cause on seven counts. The hearing will be behind closed doors unless Haley requests an open hearing, according to the hearing notice.
Haley may -- or may not -- be facing a House Ethics Committee investigation into some of her actions as a House member.
Last month, a circuit court judge dismissed a lawsuit claiming Haley broke state ethics rules while she was a House member. The judge ruled the House Ethics Committee or the state Ethics Commission should investigate ethics allegations; circuit court was not the appropriate place.
The lawsuit claimed Haley violated state ethics laws by illegally lobbying on behalf of two employers, Lexington Medical Center and Wilbur Smith, a Columbia-based engineering firm, while she was a Lexington County state representative.
When House Democrats asked Haley to waive confidentiality and let the public know if an investigation were under way, her spokesman said she would agree only if the House opened up all ethics complaints, past and future against its members, The Associated Press reports. On Wednesday, the day Senate Democrats introduced their bill, spokesman Rob Godfrey said, "If legislators are willing to do it for everyone ... for all time going forward, then that's something we can and should have bipartisan agreement on."
That says to us Haley would sign the bill if the House and Senate approve it. And there should be bipartisan support for it.
In the meantime, the governor can waive confidentiality on any House Ethics Committee investigation into her actions as a House member.
That would be "transparent," and it would be leading by example.