If anything has become crystal clear in politics over the last few months, it’s that legislators aren’t very good police officers of their own behavior.
Recall that earlier this year, Republican activist John Rainey complained to the House Ethics Committee that GOP Gov. Nikki Haley wrongly acted as a lobbyist while she was a member of the House. The committee met in private session and quickly threw out the allegations, only to receive massive criticism for acting too rashly and out of the public eye. So it started the process again, got evidence, investigated and held a two-day hearing in June, only to throw out the allegations again. Rainey, never one to give up, asked the state Supreme Court to hear an appeal on whether the charges can be heard in court. In August, the court agreed, but hasn’t yet set a hearing date.
Meanwhile about the same time, Haley put on a two-day, dog-and-pony show calling for ethics reform at the Statehouse because nobody ought to be “forced to sit in that seat like I did.” Sounding the familiar call for government transparency and accountability, Haley stomped the soap box in four cities calling for recusals by lawyer-legislators from some votes, dissolution of legislative ethics committees, more disclosure and stronger Freedom of Information laws.
At the time, House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston) stuck it to Haley for not adequately explaining what she did to earn thousands of dollars from a political supporter, noting, “It’s ironic, that if we had these reforms in place before Governor Haley committed her actions, she would probably still be meeting with the Attorney General, only in a different place.”
So now the other shoe has dropped and Harrell may be looking at meeting with the attorney general, too. Over the past few days, news reports highlighted how Harrell has been less than candid about campaign reimbursements of more than $325,000 since 2008 for travel expenses, most of which apparently were for use of his private plane. The Post and Courier asked for receipts and itemized expenditures for a month, only to be told, “The Speaker is in full compliance with all requirements of the S.C. Ethics Act.”
Later in the week, Harrell repaid $23,000 into his campaign account for expenditures he apparently couldn’t account for and told the Associated Press that he “probably will be more specific” on finance forms about reimbursements in the future.
Bottom line: Both ethics stories illustrate how the ethics system for lawmakers is broken. But it shouldn’t be a surprise. The State Integrity Investigation ranks South Carolina 45th out of 50 states with a grade of F in its 2012 Corruption Risk Report Card based on a number of factors — financing of politics, lack of transparency, institutional secrecy and loopholes in ethics laws.
“In South Carolina, critics say, politics trumps law, and politicians often rule as lords as evidenced by documented accounts of clear abuses of power,” according to the investigation. “An undercurrent of fear and political interferences bubbles throughout the state’s civil service, one that is shot through with cronyism and patronage.”
So what should be done? Wholesale reform far beyond what Haley has proposed that takes into account the separation of powers. To be constitutional, reforms must allow House and Senate leaders to be the judges of their behavior. But reform doesn’t mean they have to run investigations about their own members.
First and foremost, lawmakers must establish an independent joint ethics oversight panel charged with taking complaints, investigating them and making recommendations for real action to the House and Senate. Such a commission should include a respected former judge or Supreme Court justice as chair overseeing members who include former legislators and private citizens.
Second, legislators need to beef up the State Ethics Commission to give it more authority and power to deal with all ethics complaints involving state and municipal officials and agencies. Instead of cutting the commission’s budget, it should grow in the name of accountability and transparency.
Finally, lawmakers must comb through the ethics codes to remove loopholes and politics from the process.