The Ethics Bill Is Back


Today, a Senate Select Committee on Ethics will consider H.3945, the ethics bill that failed to make it out of the Senate last year. The bill has gone through several manifestations, each one generally worse than the last. Our hope is that Senators Rankin, Campsen, Hayes, Hutto, Jackson, Malloy, and Massey will address these three areas of the legislation.

(1) Self-policing. Currently, of course, ethics violations on the part of state lawmakers are adjudicated by other state lawmakers. The latest version of H.3945 makes a number of cosmetic changes, but it doesn’t address the underlying issue. It would reduce the State Ethics Commission to eight members: four appointed by the governor, two by the Senate president pro tem, two by the Speaker of the House. The State Ethics Commission would receive complaints and do initial investigations of General Assembly members but would then report findings to the House or Senate ethics committees, which could do further investigation and ultimately would still punish their own members.

(2) Ignorance of the law is an excuse. The bill would stipulate that criminal offenses, in order to fall afoul of the law, must have been committed “knowingly.” Since it’s extremely difficult to prove or disprove knowledge, this clause provides an extra layer of protection for lawmakers – precisely the opposite of what an ethics reform bill is supposed to do.

(3) Income disclosure. The bill’s provision requiring the disclosure of private income is a strong one, and it would erase South Carolina’s shameful status as the only state in the nation that requires its elected officials to disclose nothing about how they make money. For some reason, however, court orders, bank interest, and mutual funds are exempt. They shouldn’t be: these are sources of private income, and frequently lucrative ones.

None of these proposals are complicated; none require a law degree to understand. They are simple principles that citizens have a right to expect their elected leaders to follow.

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