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SC Senate Judiciary chairman votes against his own ethics reform plan after amendment adopted

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — The Senate on Wednesday rejected a bill aimed at strengthening South Carolina's ethics laws, dealing a blow to legislation Gov. Nikki Haley says is her top priority.

The proposal failed on a vote of 19-24 after weeks of debate, including six hours Wednesday.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said the defeat could mean ethics reform is done.

"I'm embarrassed and taken aback," said Martin, R-Pickens.

He voted against his own bill after the Senate approved an amendment changing how investigations into legislators would be handled. Currently, legislative ethics committees oversee their own members' campaign filings, while the State Ethics Commission is responsible for all other filings from state and locally elected officials.

Haley, who devoted much of last month's inauguration speech to urging legislators to pass ethics reform, has said any reform package must include independent investigations. Haley's personal experience with the House Ethics Committee in 2012, when she was cleared of allegations she lobbied for employers while a House member, prompted lawmakers of both parties to call ethics reform a top priority. But legislators have been unable since to agree on what to do.

Martin's bill would have put a restructured State Ethics Commission in charge of investigations into legislators. But many senators have balked at that idea. They insist that problems with legislators overseeing their own have been in the House, not the Senate.

A compromise amendment by Senate Ethics Chairman Luke Rankin — approved 25-20 earlier Wednesday — instead created a nine-member investigative ethics committee for legislators, separate from the State Ethics Commission, that includes four legislators. The governor and attorney general would have appointed the rest.

"It was independent enough, and transparent," said Rankin, R-Conway. The only difference from Martin's proposal, he said, is that it didn't lump responsibility of legislators in with statewide, city and county officials to a state commission that can't handle their current workload.

But Martin said that's worse than changing nothing because it creates a mirage of reform.

"It placed ourselves in a special, privileged class we created for ourselves," he said. "I can't defend that, and I won't."

The bill was defeated after Haley posted on Facebook the names of senators who voted for Rankin's amendment, calling it a "slap in the face to every citizen," and pledged to veto any bill without "true independent investigations."

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