Bill resulting from 2-year effort to strengthen SC ethics laws dies on last day of session


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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — A bill resulting from a two-year effort to strengthen South Carolina's ethics laws is officially dead.

The legislative session ended Thursday without the Senate voting on a compromise measure that Republican senators who took the podium to run out the clock denounced as too watered down.

Sen. Wes Hayes urged his colleagues to pass an imperfect but good bill, saying the Legislature can push for more next year. The bill's key components required officeholders to disclose all of their income sources — though not the amounts — and required third-party groups raising money to defeat or elect candidates to disclose their donors and expenses.

"This is something we need to do," said Hayes, R-Rock Hill.

But Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, argued the bill's passage would allow legislators to incorrectly claim they'd accomplished sweeping reform as promised.

"This box will be checked, and it will be another 23 years before we get on this thing again," he said. "Ethics isn't something you accept incremental progress on."

The compromise did nothing to change the system of the House and Senate overseeing their colleagues' campaign filings. Currently, House and Senate committees handle ethics complaints against their current and former members, while the state Ethics Commission oversees all other elected officials.

To be considered reform, Davis said, the bill had to include independent oversight, as government watchdog groups have demanded. He noted that Gov. Nikki Haley has repeatedly said independent investigations must be in the bill.

"That was driven home time and time and time again," Davis said. "We shouldn't settle for anything less."

This week, however, Haley said the compromise should pass. She called it a way to "move the ball forward," though she referred to it as an income disclosure bill, not ethics reform.

The Senate abandoned the idea of independent investigations of members in the version it passed earlier this year, after senators failed to agree to any plan for doing so.

Though Republicans took the podium to filibuster the compromise, Haley's campaign blamed her Democratic challenger, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, for its demise. Sheheen was among senators who twice voted Thursday not to force speakers from the podium to take a vote.

"The people of our state have fought for and deserve an open, honest and accountable government that serves them, not the other way around — and yet time after time career politicians like Vince Sheheen have fought against those efforts to clean up government," said Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey.

Sheheen, D-Camden, said he expects her campaign to twist the facts.

"I'm not going to pretend this is a real ethics bill. It doesn't even do the things she said needed to occur," he said.

The Legislature last passed ethics reform after a 1990 FBI operation that resulted in 27 convictions or guilty pleas of state legislators and lobbyists.

The push for reform was renewed in 2012 when Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned and pleaded to campaign spending violations, and Haley was cleared by the House Ethics Committee of allegations she lobbied for former employers while in the House. Haley agreed with the committee's findings that gray areas of the law should be cleaned up, and she campaigned for changes.

The House and Senate created separate study committees, and Haley put together her own independent group to come up with a plan. She and legislators of both parties called ethics reform a top priority for 2013, then 2014. But any reform effort must start anew next year with a new bill.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said there must be more public outcry to force lawmakers to create an independent ethics panel. He said that may result from a pending case against House Speaker Bobby Harrell, whatever its outcome. Attorney General Alan Wilson sent allegations to the state grand jury that Harrell improperly used his influence. Harrell, who maintains he's done nothing wrong, contends ethics charges against a lawmaker must first be reviewed by the legislative panel. A Supreme Court hearing is set for Tuesday.

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