- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 4, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Efforts to create an independent investigatory ethics commission have been scrapped by South Carolina lawmakers.

A joint House and Senate committee on ethics reform came to an agreement Wednesday to drop the House’s version to create a 12-person independent commission to investigate violations.

The proposed committee would have left the responsibility of punishing violators up to the various and separate ethics bodies within each branch and respective legislative chamber. The Senate strongly opposes creating an independent ethics commission.

The compromise bill would require elected officials and candidates to disclose sources of personal income but not amounts. It would allow them to pay ethics-violation fines with campaign funds but would ban Leadership Political Action Committees that raise and spend money for legislators without campaign fund oversight. Super PACs would be required to disclose their top five donors and any donor who donates more than $10,000. They would also be required to register, declare their purpose and disclose who is running the PAC.

If passed, a committee would be set up to determine what violations are criminal or civil in nature. Currently, all violations can be prosecuted as misdemeanors.

Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Luke Rankin, R-Conway, said the bill instills public confidence through the tightening of disclosure rules, such as requiring that conflicts of interest be disclosed and outside groups register and define themselves.

“All of this gets to the heart of our role as public servants and whether or not we are carrying forward our duties with the people’s interest at heart versus our own,” said Rankin. “The thing that we don’t have here is what the governor has asked for, and that being the independent oversight by an outside group appointed by various folks.”

Rankin said the perceived ethics crisis in South Carolina government stems from, among other things, the use of a state plane for Gov. Mark Sanford’s campaign and Gov. Nikki Haley’s failure to disclose her involvement with Lexington Hospital.

John Crangle, director of the government watchdog group Common Cause South Carolina, welcomed the ethics reform bill and agreed with lawmakers that a 12-person investigatory commission was unnecessary. If the legislative ethics committee, State Ethics Commission and attorney general do their job, there will be no need for another level of bureaucracy, he said.

Crangle said his biggest concern is that the bill does not adequately regulate the use of campaign money for so-called office-related expenses. He cited an ongoing investigation into allegations that House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, used campaign money for personal things.

A final report on the ethics reform bill is expected to be sent to the House and Senate on Thursday.