Special panel delivers strong ethics reform

Lawmakers would do well to pore over the recently released report from a panel suggesting fixes to South Carolina's anemic ethics laws.

The S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform, created by Gov. Nikki Haley, hit the major marks of substantive reform, including fuller income disclosure, independent oversight of ethics charges against House and Senate members and stronger open records and campaign finance laws.

The report is well written, laying out the major issues and the rationale behind the recommendations. Co-chairmen Henry McMaster and Travis Medlock, both former state attorneys general, and the commission members are to be commended.

More importantly, their work should not sit on a shelf nor play second fiddle to lawmakers own efforts on this subject.

Haley created the commission after her own ethics problems. Republican Party activist John Rainey sued Haley, accusing her of using her office for personal gain while she was a state representative. A circuit court judge said the House Ethics Committee was the appropriate forum for his complaint. After the Ethics Committe cleared Haley twice, Rainey took his case to the S.C. Supreme Court. The high court announced last week it would hear arguments March 20 on whether such ethics charges can be heard in state court.

The case is just one example of why we need a straightforward, independent ethics review process.

Here are some of the commission's 23 recommendations:

  • Create independent oversight of ethics laws by expanding the enforcement powers of the state Ethics Commission and making use of a new Public Integrity Unit. The goal is to treat all public officials the same.
  • Strengthen conflict of interest laws by requiring disclosure of public and private sources of income rather than just income from government sources. Officials and family members also would have to disclose how much they get from government sources.
  • Strengthen campaign finance laws by clarifying the process of filing to run for office; limiting how campaign funds can be used and abolishing political action committees run by legislative leaders.
  • Increasing transparency with changes to the open records law. The panel recommends reducing the time officials have to respond to a request under the state Freedom of Information Act from 15 business days to seven calendar days; removing legislators' exemption from the law; and lowering the cost to people making requests. Officials would have 30 days to fulfill a request; today there is no time limit. The commission also recommends a better -- and cheaper -- way to resolve disputes over records requests by sending them to administrative law courts rather than circuit courts and eliminating the need to hire an attorney unless parties want them.
  • The commission recognizes one of the fundamental weaknesses of the Freedom of Information Act: a defined time to say whether or not a request will be fulfilled and an ill-defined time to actually fulfill the request. "Delay is one of the prime obstacles -- and sometimes obstructions -- to effective use and respect for the Freedom of Information Act," the report states.

    We'd like to see strong penalties for flouting the law. Too often, officials thumb their nose at requests, knowing they can do so with impunity because of the expense and trouble of filing a lawsuit over their actions.

    The commission also recommends stiffer penalties for criminal violations of the state's ethics laws and would ban officials from using campaign funds to pay criminal fines for ethics violations. That seems a no-brainer. Violators should bear the full brunt of their actions.

    The House and Senate have created their own panels to come up with suggestions for improving ethics oversight and enforcement. A House GOP panel is recommending sending ethics complaints to a revamped Ethics Commission. If the Ethics Commission finds probable cause that a complaint is valid, it would be investigated by the Public Integrity Unit, led by the attorney general. The unit's findings would go back to the legislative ethics panels for action.

    Eventually, the legislative committees would be abolished if voters approve. Lawmakers contend it takes a constitutional change to eliminate the legislative ethics committees.

    The House proposal might be a step in the right direction, but South Carolinians would be better served if legislators turned their attention to the governor's commission report and its fuller recommendations.