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Ethics Commission Recommends Overhaul

Panel calls for tough measures that would make South Carolina's ethics laws the toughest in the US.

Created in October by Gov. Nikki Haley, the South Carolina Commission on Ethics Reform released a series of recommendations during a Statehouse press conference on Monday.

Commission Co-Chair Henry McMaster told the media that one of the main goals was to enact reforms that would make South Carolina's ethics laws among the toughest in the country.

The Commission has no legislative authority, but its members are so well-respected that Haley hoped it could influence meaningful reform. Upon release of the recommendations Haley issued the following statement:

“When I appointed this commission, I knew I was giving its members a tough assignment, and a short timeframe. I am immensely pleased that they rose to the occasion and did a remarkable job. The power of this commission comes from its membership. These are bipartisan leaders in the areas of law enforcement, ethics, and journalism, who, most importantly, have no stake in the current system and no bias toward protecting anyone’s prerogatives. If their recommendations are adopted, South Carolina will move from being among the worst states on government ethics to one of the best states. It’s that simple. Now it is up to members of the General Assembly to move the ball forward. If this bipartisan commission could do its exceptional work in less than two months, the General Assembly should be able to do its work in less than four months. I look forward to working with the commission and the General Assembly in the days and weeks ahead. We now have a golden opportunity to make comprehensive and meaningful ethics reform the law of our state. It’s time to seize that opportunity.”

A summary of the 23 recommendations are below (the full report is attached to this story):

  1. Revise statutory language governing the filing of the Statement of Economic Interests for non-incumbent candidates.
  2. The Commission recommends that all public officials should also disclose all private sources of income. As to private sources of income, the Commission recommends that all public officials also report the amount of the income if : 1) the source or a lobbyist on its behalf has sought or will seek official action by the public official, the public official’s office or the governmental entity upon or in which the public official serves; or 2) the source or will be subject to regulation by the public official, the public official’s office, or the public official’s governmental entity; or 3) the source has or will have any contractual or financial relationship with the public official in his official capacity, the public official’s office, or the public official’s governmental entity.
  3. Revise the Statement of Economic Interests filed by all public officials to require the disclosure of all fiduciary positions held, whether compensated or uncompensated, to include the name of the entity, title of position, the date the position was assumed, and a brief description of the duties performed.
  4. The Commission recommends a prohibition to include “influencing in any way” the process, as well as voting in a matter that is relevant to legislator's client.
  5. Lengthen that period of recusal from twelve (12) to twenty-four (24) months in those cases where legislators represented a client of fee. The recommendation will reduce the likelihood of an actual or apparent conflict of interest.
  6. We recommend that laws should expressly allow representation and providing advice on matters prior to an appearance in court or contested case hearing.
  7. Legislators should report on their Statement of Economic Interests professional fees to themselves or their firms for handling judicial cases where a state agency is an opposing party.
  8. Current ethics law’s definition of “committee” has been found unconstitutional and, thus, unenforceable by two different federal district courts because it is too broad: it purports to impose the reporting and other regulatory requirements of the State Ethics Commission on all political committees, rather than limiting these requirements to those committees which have as the major purpose, as opposed to a major purpose, the support or opposition of the nomination or election of one or more clearly identified candidates. Thus, various “committees” have been able to participate in our elections without identifying themselves or their contributors. Revising the definition of “committee” corrects this defect which currently exists. Such “committees” would be required to register with the State Ethics Commission. This statutory change will shed light on “committees” inside and outside South Carolina which seek to influence an election.
  9. Abolish “Leadership Political Action Committees.”
  10. Amend Ethics laws governing the use of State-owned aircraft in two respects for clarity. First, official business for purposes of use of State-owned aircraft should include bill signings, press conferences, and any activity in furtherance of the public official’s official duties and responsibilities. Second, delete the words “is prima facie evidence of a violation.
  11. Add a new provision that excludes from the provisions of S.C. Code those public employees of institutions of higher education who are participating in the development of intellectual property that benefits the institution and the State of South Carolina—even if it also benefits an individual public employee—where the institution retains some royalty rights to the intellectual property.
  12. Revise so as to define “lobbying” and “lobbyist” to include individuals who lobby not only the General Assembly, Offices of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, state agencies, boards and commissions, but also any political subdivision of the State, to include counties, city councils, municipalities, school districts, and special purpose or public service districts. The registration fee for lobbyists and lobbyists’ principals should be increased from the current level of $100.00 per year.
  13. A criminal investigatory team with members from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, Department of Revenue, Office of the Inspector General and the State Ethics Commission, with attorneys from the Attorney General's Office should be created and authorized by statute to investigate allegations of criminal public corruption for prosecution.
  14. Revise the statutory language governing the State Ethics Commission to give it the authority and jurisdiction to investigate and take appropriate action, where necessary, against members of the legislative branch.
  15. Revise the statutory language to strengthen penalties for
    criminal violations of the S.C. Ethics Reform Act.
  16. Currently, the S.C. Ethics Reform Act permits violators to pay fees, civil and criminal penalties with campaign funds. The Commission believes that penalties resulting from criminal prosecution should not be paid with campaign funds under any circumstances.
  17. The Commission recommends enhanced prosecutorial tools for
    use by solicitors and the Attorney General for addressing public corruption, including serious ethics violations, through the adoption of criminal statutes for mail fraud and wire fraud.
  18. The Commission recommends that ethics law be amended to its original 1988 version to protect state employees who report abuse, misuse, destruction, or loss of public funds or resources. Further, the Commission recommends that if an employee’s report results in a net savings, the employee should be rewarded twenty-five percent (25%) of the net savings, up to $25,000.00.
  19. Revise statutory language related to the time for fulfilling
    Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests for public records. The Commission recommends the General Assembly amend laws to provide for the following:
    • Public bodies shall respond to requests for public information in no more than seven calendar days, indicating whether or not the reques t has been granted.
    • If written notification is not received within seven days, the request must be considered as approved.
    • If the request is granted or approved, the requested record must be made available no later than 30 days from the date of the original request if there is no charge, or if a deposit is received, then no later than 30 days after receipt of the deposit.
    • If requested records are more than 24 months old, the public body may use no more than 45 calendar days to provide them.
  20. Revise statutory language related to the allowable charges for
    fulfilling Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests for public records. The Commission
    recommends the General Assembly amend S.C. Code Ann. § 30 -4-30(b) to provide for the
    following:
    • Public bodies may establish fees consistent with the actual cost of searching for and
    • making copies of records.
    • Fees should be charged to reflect the lowest copier rate available to the public body.
    • The number of hours for searches may be capped, depending on the complexity of the search.
    • A deposit not to exceed 25% of the anticipated total cost for search and reproduction of the records should be required.
  21. Revise statutory language of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to eliminate the current legislative exemption. The Commission also recommends that the General Assembly amend S.C. law to allow for a legislative exemption for drafts of proposed legislation not yet introduced.
  22. Revise statutory language of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to create enforcement provisions. The Commission recommends the General Assembly amend laws to provide for the following: 1) Establish a specific enforcement mechanism through the Administrative Law Court for the speedy resolution of disputes concerning FOIA requests and responses thereto. 2) Allocate adequate resources (staffing/funds) for meaningful enforcement. 3)Retain right of judicial appeal.
  23. Revise statutory language of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to require that any organization supported in whole or in part by public funds or the entity’s employees participate in the State Health Plan and/or State Retirement Plan should be considered a “public body” and subject to FOIA.                               

If you had to pick one, which of these recommendations by the Commission would you most want to see enacted? Tell us below.

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