The string of headlines on ethics issues over the past six years means the time has come to strengthen our laws. I have written about this issue a number of times over the past two years as the House has studied and debated the Ethics Act.
This week, the House put the finishing touches on a bi-partisan Ethics Reform Act that passed 110-0. A true recounting of this issue would take many pages (or pixels on your computer screen), so here are a few of the major reforms our Ethics Reform Act fixes:
1) Independent Investigations for Reported Ethics Violations: We established a 12-member independent panel responsible for investigating every ethics matter that arises for members of all branches of the government: executive (including local officials), legislative, and judicial. This body only has the authority to receive and investigate complaints. Adjudication of those complaints will go back to the appropriate enforcement committee. Two members would be appointed by the House, two by the Senate, four by the Governor, and four by the state Supreme Court.
Who would be on this committee was a point of contention, since it is imperative that we remove as many sources of conflicts of interest as possible. Nobody on the committee may be a public official, an office holder, a family member of an official, been a lobbyist for the previous four years, or a judge. In addition, we excluded anybody who had made a campaign contribution to the person who nominated them or anybody who is a business associate of the person nominating them. The members of the committee must also avoid making any political contributions or engaging in any political activity covered by the ethics act.
2) Expanded Income Disclosure: This legislation requires reporting of the source of any private income by the filer or their immediate family members. It requires the reporting of the specific source of income received from a lobbyist principal, state or local government source, or business regulated by the filer. This will give the public new access to information on the potential conflicts of interest that may arise with public officials.
3) Banned “Leadership PACs”: We removed language that allows political action committees controlled directly or indirectly by a candidate to exist.
4) Financial Records: The legislation allows an official’s ethics supervisory committee to request banking records that are required to be maintained by public officials. Public officials must now keep these records for four years (to match the statute of limitations). We changed this so the committees may substantiate information on a candidate’s quarterly disclosures.
5) “Black Out” Period: We require candidates to file a final pre-election report 48 hours before the election in order to disclose final contributions and expenditures.
6) New Restrictions on Campaign Funds: The law adds language detailing how candidates may reimburse themselves with campaign funds for travel and associated expenses by limiting mileage reimbursement to the IRS established rate, and limiting other travel expenses to either campaign events or events that fall within the scope of the candidates official duties. (And the law more strictly defines what official duties are.”
The legislation also clarifies that equipment purchased for campaign use must be consumed by the campaign or become an asset of the campaign. It requires payment for campaign services to be contemporaneous with the provision of those services and disallow immediate family from being paid by a campaign. It also disallows cash expenditures from campaign accounts.
While this legislation may not fix every ethics issue that every person may have, this goes a long way toward updating our 20-year-old Ethics Act to better reflect the realities of modern campaigns. There is no doubt that more tweaks and clarifications will be needed as these reforms are implemented, but after two years of bi-partisan study and debate in the House, this is a strong reform law that duly earned the support of many outside watchdog groups after it was approved this week.
As always, it is a privilege to serve you in the South Carolina House. If you ever need help with state government, or have any thoughts or concerns about what we are doing, please do not hesitate to contact me.