I. Structural Recommendations
A) The foremost recommendation of the Committee is to make the necessary Constitutional changes tot he South Carolina Constitution for all ethics enforcement for both executive and legislative officials and employees to be administered by an independent commission made up of appointees from both branches. This Commission would have the power to accept and investigate all complaints against public officials and public employees as well as to find facts and issue punishment to the same
B) Recognizing the time constraints associated with a Constitutional Amendment mean that a unified Ethics Commission could not come into being until 2015 the Committee recommends a set of more immediate structural reforms to the ethics enforcement process which call for a statutory shift of all authority that the General Assembly may relinquish pursuant to the South Carolina Constitution.
1) Reconstitute the State Ethics Committee by:
- abolishing all current terms of Ethics Commissioners
- replace existing commissioners with eight new appointments: four appointed by the Governor, two of which must be members in good standing of the S.C. Bar; two elected by the membership of the Senate and Two elected by the Membership of the House
- stagger single, six year terms
- compensate members for their service
- adequately fund the Commission for staff
- allow the Commission to receive, review and preliminarily investigate all complaints against any public official in the legislative or executive branch
2) Establish a Public Integrity Unit (PIU)
- comprised of Attorney General, Chief of SLED, Director of DOR, Exec. Director of Ethics Commission, and the State Inspector General
- allow, by referral from a member agency, to investigate allegations of public corruption including ethics allegations and criminal conduct
- share that investigation among the member agencies and report findings back to the originating member agency
3) Retain House and Senate Ethics Committees:
- jurisdiction over all matters associated with the filing of required reports (quarterly disclosures and SEIs)
- until the constitutional change is in place, the Committees would continue to be the final arbiter of fact as well as the body responsible for issuing punishment to members of the General Assembly. However, the above changes would not allow the Committees to operate in a confidential matter. At the point in the process where the Committee’s receive jurisdiction, probable cause has already been determined and the only remaining steps are a hearing and final determination to be conducted in public session.
II. Substantive Reforms
The Committee, having reviewed the Ethics Reform Act, also recommends multiple changes to the substantive law to encourage greater disclosure, further identify conflicts of interest and close existing and exploited loopholes in an antiquated set of statutes.
1) Require the disclosure of private income sources as a component of the annual Statement of Economic Interest filed by all public officials.
2) Further, require disclosure of specific amounts of income received by public officials if the source of that income is a lobbyist or lobbyist principal or the source of income is an entity regulated by the body the public official serves.
3) Abolish “Leadership PACs”.
4) First by outlawing public officials from associating, fundraising, establishing or otherwise having involvement in non-candidate committees a/k/a “leadership PACs”.
5) Second, by listing among the various contributions that elected officials are unable to receive, contributions from any entity directly or indirectly associated with another candidate.
6) Reestablish the definition of “Committee” within the Ethics code so that it is no longer constitutionally over-broad.
7) Enhance both the level and number of penalties available to the Ethics Commission for violations of the Ethics Act.
8) Specifically, allow the Commission to order appropriate remedial action from a violator of the Ethics Act.
9) Additionally, raise the amount of fines for public officials and allows the commission to de-register lobbyist or lobbyist principals as necessary.
10) Require that any outstanding ethics fines, imposed by the new commission, must be paid in full prior to a public officials name appearing on the ballot. Additionally, require that any lobbyist or lobbyist principal must settle all outstanding fines and fees prior to re-registering for a new calendar year.
11) Expand the definition of “lobbyist” to include parties who appear before counties and municipalities thereby triggering the requirement that they register with the state commission and are subject to the same restrictions as lobbyist who appear on the state level.
12) Extend the current statute of limitations to include the time a public official spends in a particular office plus one fill calendar year from the end of the public official’s final term in that office. This would be an expansion of time beyond the current four year statute of limitations which can shield a public official from ethical violations which occur while they maintain a particular position.
13) Raise the contribution limits for all types of offices and allow the newly created Ethics Commission to adjust the limittions once per five years in accordance with the consumer price index.
14) Require that recusal on a matter extends to committee and subcommittee votes.
15) Require lobbyist to disclose all income received from lobbyist principals for all services rendered.
16) Require the disclosure of ALL government sources of income and the amounts of that income, including payments (other than Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and federal pension plans) from the federal government.
17) Clarify that members of the General Assembly may represent clients (with proper disclosures) before state agencies and boards so long as the matter may ultimately be subject of a contested case hearing.
18) Clarify public officials who vote on budget items are not later prohibited from doing business (with required disclosure of amounts) with entities, prospectively.
19) Require that any contribution accepted pursuant to the debt retirement process must be used for that purpose alone.
20) Expand the definition of “business with which he is associated” to include consultants and independent contractors.
21) Expand “individual with which he is associated” in the manner described above.
22) Define “economic interest” to include not only economic benefit but also the avoidance of loss.
23) Restrict agency heads, cabinet appointments and other senior level state, county and city employees from engaging in fundraising activity on behalf of current public officials or candidates.
Specifically the Committee endorses the legislation filed by Representative Bill Taylor (H. 3163) which addresses several issues associated with FOIA and forthcoming legislation from Representative Weston Newton which will address the “legislative exemption” currently contained within FOIA.
These two pieces of legislation contain provisions that, among other items, deal specifically with:
1) Reducing the time for response and compliance with FOIA requests.
2) Lessening the cost to public for legitimate FOIA inquiries.
3) Removing the absolute legislative exemption from FOIA, while recognizing the public interest in allowing legislators and staff the opportunity to develop legislation. Establishing the Administrative Law Court as an arbiter for FOIA disputes, granting both agency and requester the ability to appear.