Who can file a complaint?
Anyone who suspects that a violation of the law has been committed by a public official, public member, or public employee may file a complaint with the State Ethics Commission. Effective as of April 1, 2017 the SC State Ethics Commission has jurisdiction to accept complaints filed against members of the SC General Assembly and candidates for the House of Representatives and the SC Senate. The State Ethics Commission is also authorized to file a complaint against any public official, public employee, or public member who is suspected of violating the Ethics Reform Act. FAXED COPIES WILL NOT BE ACCEPTED.
How do I file a complaint?
When a complaint is filed, a Complaint Form must be completed, signed, and returned to the State Ethics Commission. This form discloses:
- Name of alleged violator, also known as the "Respondent";
- Filer of the complaint, also known as the "Complainant"; and
- Particulars of the violation, including the name of the alledged violator and the facts concerning the allegation for filing the complaint.
What happens next?
A copy of the complaint is forwarded to the Respondent along with a general statement explaining that a complaint has been filed against him/her.
All complaints are reviewed by the Executive Director for sufficient facts of whether a violation of the Ethics law has been committed. If it is determined that there are not sufficient facts to constitute a violation, both parties are notified, the complaint is dismissed, and the matter is stricken from public record. Any dismissed complaints may be refiled or appealed with new or additional facts within ten days after the dismissal to the full Commission.
If there are sufficient facts presented, the complainant and respondent are notified and the complaint is referred to the Commission staff for investigation.
What if there is an investigation?
The Commission will conduct an investigation to seek witnesses or evidence to determine whether there is probable cause to believe the allegations made in the complaint. Witnesses may be interviewed, evidence subpoenaed, and depositions may be taken to determine the facts in the alleged violation.
After the completion of the investigation, the Commissioners will review the evidence, if any, of the finding of facts and a recommendation of whether probable cause exists. If the investigation determines that the complaint filed does not allege facts sufficient to constitute a violation, the complaint is dismissed. The Respondent and Complainant are notified of the dismissal; however, if the Commission determines there is probable cause, it shall order a hearing before a three Commission member panel drawn at random. At this point the complaint and the Notice of Hearing or dismissal order become public.
What is a hearing?
A notice of hearing to the Respondent is issued at least 30 days prior to the hearing. The Respondent is notified that failure to appear will result in a judgement of default rendered against him. The Respondent is allowed to gather evidence to conflict with the alleged violation.
A hearing, usually held during an executive session, is similar to a courtroom where the witnesses and the Respondent are put under oath to tell their side of the story. All the evidence and testimony are presented during the hearing and any expert's reports and other evidence can be used, providing a copy of the writing is served to the Commission and any other counsel at least seven days prior to the scheduled hearing. The opposing party may oppose the submission of the writing, and failure to do so will deem no objection to the evidence being submitted. The Commissioners will act as the jury, weighing all evidence and testimony submitted during the hearing. The Commissioner's decision will be the final disposition of a complaint.
All complaints and investigations are to be kept confidential until probable cause is determined, unless the Respondent to the alleged violations waives confidentiality in writing to the State Ethics Commission. All hearings will be recorded and maintained for no more than four years. Transcripts are available at the expense of the requestor.
What disciplinary actions can be taken?
If found guilty of an alleged violation, the Commission may:
- Recommend administrative action or disciplinary action;
- Issue a public warning or reprimand;
- Order restitution; and
- Levy a civil penalty of not more than $2,000.
Any criminal activity is subject to prosecution by the Attorney General's office If found guilty of a violation, the Respondent is guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a fine of up to $5,000, imprisonment for not more than 1 year, or both. Bribery is a felony and carries the penalty of a $10,000 fine, 10 years in prison, or both.
When may a complaint be amended?
Complaints may be amended at any time prior to the hearing with proper notification to all parties involved and the complaint can be amended at the hearing with approval from the panel. When this happens, either party may request a continuance. Complaints may be withdrawn at any time prior to the hearing. Complaints may be withdrawn after determination of probable cause only after approval from the Commissioners.