Lawmakers Propose Bill To End Criminal Charges For Some Ethics A -

Lawmakers Propose Bill To End Criminal Charges For Some Ethics Abuses

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After months of promises about sweeping ethics reform in the South Carolina legislature, there is a bill moving ahead in the State House.  The fast-moving bill is drawing fire as  critics claim it would actually weaken oversight of lawmakers and decriminalize some ethics violations.

For example, Ken Ard resigned as Lt. Governor last year after pleading guilty to 7 misdemeanors in connection with campaign finance laws.  Under the new bill, those charges may not have been considered crimes.

Barton Swaim, of the South Carolina Policy Council said, "the way in which this bill was passed, in which it was kept secret from the public in both the subcommittee and the committee process really sends a message to the public that your input does not matter."

The South Carolina League of Women Voters said the bill would mean "no meaningful external oversight of legislators".

The bill changes language already in state law that imposes criminal penalties for some campaign violations. 

One of the bill's sponsors, House Speaker Bobby Harrell is part of a SLED investigation now after the SC Policy Council filed an ethics complaint alleging Harrell used his office for personal gain,

Harrell has denied the charge.

7 On Your Side asked another sponsor, Spartanburg Republican Rita Allison if the bill decriminalizes many ethics violations.

"Well actually there are a lot of other code sections that really offer criminal for various things so I think there's been a misunderstanding," Allison said.

Both Democrats and Republicans said they would work to get the criminal penalties put back into the bill.

"Typically an ethics reform package strengthens ethics reform laws this weakens them considerably in a number of ways," Swaim said. 

Republican Majority Leader Bruce Bannister of Greenville was a key sponsor of the bill.  He released a statement after initially saying he had no comment to 7 On Your Side reporters.

It says "I need to clear the air on a number of gross misconceptions about the Ethics Reform bill that is currently on the House floor. 

"First, the House Judiciary Committee and the Constitutional Laws Subcommittee had more than 5 hours of hearings on the proposed ethics reform legislation, with 24 hours between the meetings. If people didn't understand the 40-page amendment – and only 10 pages contained changes – they had plenty of time to seek the answers.  If people didn't read those 10 pages, I cannot help that. 

"Second, This legislation is coming up at the end of April because I, and our Caucus Ethics Reform Study Committee, have spent more than six months analyzing the options, negotiating with the Governor, negotiating with Democrats, holding public hearings, and settling on a comprehensive package that includes the best of everyone's ideas. The Caucus went out of its way to include everyone from our Governor's study committee, to ethics and law experts, to the general public. Everyone down to the S.C. Policy Council has had input into this product. What is in it today should not surprise anybody.

"Third, it was not my intent to decriminalize serious and intentional violations of the Ethics Act. I am working with others to clearly define what those items are. The Ethics Commission, as proposed, does not have the ability to adequately determine, or bring, criminal charges against a public official. The state Attorney General should bring criminal charges for things like breach of trust, bribery, or anything else that is a gross violation of the public's trust.

"Finally, the legislation strengthens the civil penalties and options available to the proposed Ethics Commission, including specifically adding items such as ‘expulsion from office' that were never spelled out before. However, it is not fair for a public official – nearly all of whom do campaign contributions and expenditures themselves – to be criminally penalized for simple accounting errors.

"I have heard the questions, comments, and complaints about the bill as written, and I am working with my colleagues in the Republican Caucus to draft an amendment to address these issues. Nobody is perfect. That's why pencils have erasers. When we take the bill up on Thursday afternoon, I expect ethics reform's opponents to all call themselves the ‘champions of ethics' and file many amendments to kill this legislation. I will work with my colleagues in both caucuses to ensure that a good, common-sense bill is passed.

"There are 124 opinions in the House about how to do ethics reform, and perfection is the enemy of good. On Thursday, we will come together, compromise, and work to pass an ethics law that will reflect the best values of our state."

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