Teresa Arnold, State Director, AARP South Carolina
JoAnne Day, Co-President League of Women Voters of South Carolina
The South Carolina Senate has an opportunity to move investigation and assessment of ethical complaints about members of the General Assembly from legislator-only committees to an independent Ethics Commission and its professional investigators. At present complaints against senators and representatives are handled by committees made up of fellow legislators who can dismiss complaints in secret without any other input.
The SC Senate Select Committee on Ethics Reform on October 8 began consideration of an amendment to legislation now stuck on the Senate Floor, H. 3945. While not perfect, the amendment makes significant strides in improving both ethical standards for our public officials and the enforcement system for members of the General Assembly.
Under the proposed amendment, primarily drafted by Sen. Chip Campsen, complaints would go to the Ethics Commission for professional investigation and an independent assessment of whether there is probable cause to believe that a violation of the law has been committed, before turning the case over to the General Assembly for possible disciplinary action. Commissioners would represent a balance of executive and legislative branch appointees, with provisions to avoid partisan bias. This system would be much more worthy of public trust than our current approach, in which legislators are expected to police the colleagues with whom they work every day and, not surprisingly, seldom find serious fault.
The interests of legislators would be protected under this system. The current Ethics Commission does not pursue “witch hunts” based on politically motivated complaints, and would be even less likely to do so under the proposed carefully designed system. South Carolina has “citizen legislators” and commissioners would be drawn from among their peers, the citizens of our state, in a way that prevents partisan bias in the initial investigation and assessment. Final decisions would be made by their colleagues in the General Assembly.
The proposed system would be consistent with the AARP Policy Book, which states that “Government at all levels should establish and adequately fund independent nonpartisan commissions to create and enforce ethics and lobbying regulations.” Also, “Public accountability is unattainable unless elected officials and government appointees are committed to implementing and enforcing evenhandedly the laws and regulations for which they are responsible.”
However, some members of the committee indicated that they do not support change in the current system of enforcement. They say the current system works. They say that constituents don’t write or call demanding change. They therefore see no need to change. We disagree.
First, this amendment has the support of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, AARP South Carolina, the Coastal Conservation League, Common Cause and the Conservation Voters of South Carolina. Our organizations represent many thousands of South Carolinians, who depend upon us to put their concerns before the General Assembly. We are doing that.
Second, the General Assembly addresses many issues for which there is no public outcry. For example, bills restructuring our government have passed both houses, but it is very unlikely that most legislators have been flooded with constituent demands for restructuring. Why should ethics reform be different?
Why not provide a system on which the public can rely? Why are some legislators so reluctant to put initial investigation and assessment of complaints into the hands of an independent body assisted by professional investigators, while they retain final decision-making authority? Why not protect both the public and public officials with this sound approach to ethics enforcement?