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Speakers Demonstrate Challenges of Ethics Reform

Testimony paints a complex picture.

Each of the speakers at the morning session of Tuesday’s hearing of the South Carolina Commission on Ethics Reform demonstrated why passing meaningful ethics will be so difficult.

The first speaker was Gov. Nikki Haley, who has been accused of having ethical challenges of her own. Haley commended the Commission on its work thus far and then came out in favor of “full transparency,” which would include a statement of financial interest that indicates the sources of income as well as the amounts. The governor also said she supports increased Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requirements.

The governor then departed for the Lowcountry where she made a major economic development announcement.

Following Haley in front of the Commission was South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson. Wilson detailed his goals for the Public Integrity Unit. But Wilson also explained the challenges of investigating and then prosecuting ethics violations. He noted that there are five separate organizations dedicate to ethics reform, all working independently of each other, which results in a duplication of effort and an inefficient use of resources.

Wilson said he has met with officials from other states who’ve worked on ethics reform and believes that ultimately he can coordinate the personnel from the various agencies.

After Wilson, Cathy Hazelwood, Deputy Director and General Counsel of the South Carolina Ethics Commission, spoke. Hazelwood described how difficult it is to track campaign contributions, particularly in the age of the Super PAC (Political Action Committee). “Existing Super PAC laws prevent an informed electorate,” Hazelwood said.

She also said that PAC rules are subject to interpretation, so much so that even determining what constitutes a “committee” has been argued in a courtroom. Hazelwood estimated that the state has paid $500,000 in attorney fees just in challenging the definition of committee.

Finally, Hazelwood noted how understaffed and underfunded SC Ethics Commission is.

The morning portion of the hearing was concluded by remarks from Ashley Landess of the South Carolina Policy Council (SCPC). Landess laid out the SCPC’s eight-point proposal for reform as part of her statement.

She also listed numerous examples of alleged corruption among current officeholders, including House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

Landess made numerous recommendations, but tops among them may have been the desire to see the judicial branch of government become more independent of the legislature, which currently funds it.

Once again attendance for the session was light, as it was in last month’s hearing.

The commission's next hearing is slated for January 8, when it will meet to consolidate public comments, written recommendations, and testimony and to develop its recommendations for presentation to the Governor, General Assembly, and public.

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