Even though they're your elected officials and your taxes pay their salary, in most cases you won't know about ethics charges against South Carolina House members and senators because of secrecy laws.
If someone makes an ethics complaints against a state lawmaker, members of the House and Senate Ethics committees can't even confirm that a complaint has been made or that an investigation is taking place.
"You feel uncomfortable by saying, you know, 'I can't comment.' Oftentimes you'd like to be able to say, 'Well there's nothing before us,' or something of that nature, but you can't even do that," says State Representative J. Roland Smith, R-Aiken, chairman of the House Ethics Committee.
He says complaints are kept secret to prevent someone from using the complaint process to make political opponents look bad. For example, if you're a state lawmaker, someone running against you could make up a complaint and file it and then tell voters you're being investigated by the Ethics Committee.
But some of the House Ethics Committee's work is secret even after it has found violations and fined lawmakers. In the last year, it has fined seven House members for filing campaign disclosure forms or statements of economic interest late. That information is not listed anywhere on the House's website, though; we found out by filing a Freedom of Information Act request.
When asked whether those fines should be publicized, State Representative Smith said, "If they refuse to come in and pay it or just deliberately don't do it, certainly, it needs to be known in public, because the public needs to be aware what they're doing."
The House did change its rules recently so the public can find out about some investigations, after the House Ethics Committee finds probable cause that a violation may have occurred. The ethics charges against Governor Nikki Haley, which go back to when she was a House member, were announced once the House Ethics Committee found probable cause that there might have been a violation. She was later cleared of the charges after a two-day public hearing.
The state Senate Ethics Committee also announces that an investigation is going on if it finds probable cause that a violation has occurred. But unlike the House, it lists on its website when a senator, or a candidate for Senate, is fined for any ethical violations. It also lists on that site any public reprimands of senators. (http://www.scstatehouse.gov/committeeinfo/senateethics.php)
As for the secrecy surrounding the process, Senate Ethics Committee chairman Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, says, “Until you find that there actually was a violation, we’ve, the General Assembly, has chosen in the past to be cautious in making all that public. But I think we’re going to look at that again this year, and we may want to do that in the future, make it public.”
Ethics reform will be one of the top issues for lawmakers when they go back to Columbia in January. Four different committees have been set up to look at the issue and make recommendations for strengthening state ethics laws: one by House Republicans, one by House Democrats, one by the Senate, and Governor Nikki Haley created the South Carolina Commission on Ethics Reform.
Former state attorney general Henry McMaster is the co-chair of that commission. He says he thinks the process needs to be more open. “There are some reasons for some secrecy, but I think we’ve got more than we need right now, and the result is that the average citizen just doesn’t have confidence in the system 'cause it looks like everything’s kept secret," he says.
“We just have to be careful not to let unfounded complaints hurt somebody’s good reputation, but at the other hand we have to be open, very open so that the public understands what’s going on, what their money’s being spent to support and for them to have confidence in the system and in the legislators and public officials.”
Since the House doesn't publicize the names of its members who've been fined, here they are:
State Representative Karl Allen - $100 fine for late July 2012 Campaign Disclosure Report
State Representative Eric Bikas - $5,000 fine for late July 2012 Campaign Disclosure Report
State Representative Boyd Brown - $100 fine for late January 2012 Campaign Disclosure Report
State Representative Tracy Edge - $110 fine for late April 2012 Campaign Disclosure Report
State Representative Tracy Edge - $1,900 fine for late July 2012 Campaign Disclosure Report
State Representative Joe Neal - $100 fine for late January 2012 Campaign Disclosure Report
State Representative Gary Simrill - $100 fine for late July 2012 Campaign Disclosure Report
State Representative David Tribble - $100 fine for late 2012 Statement of Economic Interests
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