- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 10, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Both the House and Senate are attempting to jumpstart next year’s debate on ethics reform with bills that would end the current system of legislators investigating their own members.

Agreement on that provision could again be key to any reform measure passing.

A Senate Judiciary subcommittee held its first hearing Wednesday on Judiciary Committee Chairman Larry Martin’s ethics proposal. It was the first bill pre-filed for the upcoming session.

Legislators of both parties have called ethics reform a top priority since 2012. But a two-year effort died in the Senate earlier this year, with many senators unwilling to change the system of legislative panels handling complaints and overseeing the campaign filings of their colleagues.

Both Gov. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson have said independent investigations must be part of the reform package.

“I strongly and firmly believe an independent regulatory body is absolutely imperative to have the public’s trust,” Wilson told the Senate panel Wednesday.

Both Martin’s bill and proposals that a House panel plans to introduce will again attempt to end legislative investigations of colleagues. The state Ethics Commission would investigate instead. Martin’s bill and the yet-to-be-filed House plans differ on the specifics of the commission’s new role.

Currently, the commission oversees the filings of all elected officials except legislators.

Under changes the Senate panel discussed, the state Ethics Commission would also look into complaints against them and make a preliminary determination as to whether an ethics law was broken. House and Senate ethics panels would continue to exist, but act only as juries that decide potential punishments. Criminal allegations would continue to be forwarded to the attorney general’s office.

The impending House plan would wrap in judges as well, so that the Ethics Commission also would investigate them. Currently the judicial branch has its own oversight system.

Martin said that’s a bad idea, and he’ll attempt to dissuade House leaders from including that in the chamber’s plan. That presents constitutional questions about the separation of powers that could derail the whole effort, he said.

Solicitor General Robert Cook, the leading attorney in Wilson’s office, told Martin’s panel that provision would be a problem.

“That would raise some very strong concerns from the court,” he said.

Critics calling for reform have called for abolishing legislative ethics panels completely, saying legislators can’t adequately police their colleagues. But many legislators point to a clause in the state constitution that says each chamber is responsible for punishing its members.

Efforts to strengthen the state’s ethics law were renewed in September by the indictment of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell on misdemeanor campaign spending violations. He subsequently pleaded guilty and resigned from office in October. That case bypassed the House Ethics Committee, as Wilson directly took an ethics complaint against Harrell. The state Supreme Court earlier this year affirmed his ability to do that.

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