The Ethics Bill: House vs. Senate


The famous (and at times notorious) “ethics bill,” having recently passed the Senate, may soon head to conference committee. The House can propose an amendment to the bill passed by the Senate, and send it back to the Senate, which can either agree to the amended version or insist on its own version. Or the House can  choose to non-concur (disagree) with the Senate version – ultimately insisting that the Senate agree to the bill passed by the House. If the House chooses the latter option, the Senate will likely also insist on the version it passed and a conference committee would be established to reach a compromise.

Conference committees are composed of three members from each chamber. In the Senate, one appointment will be made by Senator Larry Martin (chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over the bill), one by Sen. Harvey Peeler (the Majority Leader of the Senate), and one by Sen. John Courson (the President Pro Tempore). The chairman of the committee will be chosen by a majority of the appointed conferees.

Senate Version 

Self-Policing: The bill does not address independent investigations of potential ethics violations of House and Senate members. The Senate version would have made the process of investigating lawmakers’ ethics violations even worse – Senate and House members would not have fallen under the jurisdiction of the State Ethics Commission. The House and Senate ethics committees would have remained in place, and would have been empowered to do initial investigations and determine whether or not a complaint against a lawmaker or candidate for legislative office should be referred to the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED). Any reports by SLED would then be referred to each chamber’s ethics committee – where, one might easily suspect, the matter would end.

Although this provision was not adopted, the Senate agreed not to address this issue in the bill at all.

Income Disclosure: Public officials’ Statement of Economic Interests must include the sources of all income – both public and private – with the exception of income from court orders, saving, checking or brokerage accounts, and mutual funds.

Other Provisions:

House and Senate ethics committees may levy civil penalties not to exceed $2,000 for each non-technical ethics violation and may require the forfeiture of gifts, receipts, or profits obtained in violation of Chapter 13, Title 8 or Chapter 17, Title 2.

House and Senate ethics committees may issue formal advisory opinions, and these would be binding on the committees.

A provision would require out-of-state groups that contribute to in-state campaigns to disclose their identities.

Another provision would prohibit campaign funds from being used to pay penalties resulting from a criminal prosecution. The bill doesn’t address the campaign finance loophole that allows “incidental personal use of campaign materials or equipment” and expenditures “used to defray any ordinary expenses incurred in connection with an individual’s duties as a holder of elective office.” The Nerve published a story about one lawmaker’s highly questionable use of campaign funds for duties allegedly tied to his elected office.

House Version of Ethics Bill

Self-Policing. This bill’s solution to the problem is to throw members of the public into the mix – albeit members of the public selected by legislators. The bill would create a 16-member committee consisting of eight lawmakers – two Democrats and two Republican from each chamber – and eight members of the public. These committee, unlike members of the Ethics Commission, would not have to be approved by any other public official or entity; the governor would have no role.

This solution, then, is little more than another form of self-policing – only with political cover.

Income Disclosure. The House version of the bill would provide for disclosure of private sources of income over $2,500. Like the Senate version, however, court orders, bank interest, and mutual funds are exempt.

Other Provisions:

The bill would stipulate that criminal offenses, in order to fall afoul of the law, must have been committed “willfully.” (Initially the phrase was “knowingly and willfully,” but Rep. Rick Quinn was able to remove one of the adverbs.) Since it’s extremely difficult to prove or disprove intent, this clause provides an extra layer of protection for lawmakers – precisely the opposite of what an ethics reform bill is supposed to do.

A Public Integrity Unit (PIU) would be established under this version. The PIU would have codified a partnership to investigate, audit, and inspect “serious misconduct by government officials” between the Attorney General, Chief of the State Law Enforcement Division, Director of the Department of Revenue, Executive Director of the South Carolina Ethics Commission, Chairman of the Joint Committee on Ethics, and the Inspector General.

The House version prohibits campaign funds from being used to pay penalties and fines issued by the State Ethics Commission or the Joint Committee on Ethics upon findings of misconduct, or as a result of any criminal convictions.

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