February 28, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

Southard Resignation Happened Despite, Not Because of, Legislature’s Ethics Process

Close-up macro of shredded paper. Prevent identity theft and privacy related theme or newsprint / paper background.

“You shouldn’t be knowing about it”

If you keep up with state politics, you may already know that Rep. Eddy Southard (R-Moncks Corner) resigned yesterday in response to a sexual harassment complaint against him.

We have no idea whether the complaint has merit, but evidently Southard himself thinks it’s sufficiently serious to merit resignation. What caught our attention was Southard’s response to the reporter who first asked him about the complaint.

“It was supposed to be confidential,” he said to the Post and Courier’s Cynthia Roldan. “That kind of bothers me that you’ve called and are telling me you already know it.” And then: “You shouldn’t be knowing about it because I was assured that no one would know about it, except me and three other people.”

We don’t doubt that Southard was assured exactly that. Because under House rules, ethics complaints against a member remain strictly confidential until the House Ethics Committee agrees that there is probable cause.

The rule was even more secretive three years ago, when Ashley Landess, the president of the South Carolina Policy Council (The Nerve’s parent organization), was considering filing a complaint against House Speaker Bobby Harrell with the Ethics Committee. She was told flatly that if she did so, she would not be allowed to discuss the matter with anyone. She would be, in a word, gagged.

In the end, Landess and the Policy Council chose not to file with the Ethics Committee since the allegations were not primarily ethical but criminal in nature – and because the Speaker had power and influence over the members of the committee. She took it instead to the attorney general.

There is one oddity here. The complaint against Southard was for some reason referred to the House Speaker. In the Post and Courier report referenced above, the Speaker seems to have said that, after conducting an investigation, he will send the complaint either to the House Ethics Committee or to law enforcement. But neither state law nor House rules say anything about the Speaker getting the first look at a complaint against a member. The law gives that power exclusively to the Ethics Committee. Of course, the whole affair is shrouded in secrecy either way, but one wishes state lawmakers would abide by the law, even when the law affords them improper insulation from public scrutiny.

In South Carolina, only state lawmakers have that kind of privilege. We certainly don’t have it, and neither do you, if you’re not a state lawmaker.

So when Rep. Southard says, “It was supposed to be confidential,” he’s not lying. The only reason it didn’t remain confidential is that word got out. Naturally, we’re wondering how often word doesn’t get out.

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The Nerve