Private citizens could be forced to testify before and turn over their financial records to S.C. House or Senate committees under a House bill filed for the new legislative session that starts today.
Contacted Monday by The Nerve, former Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, who announced last month he was resigning from office effective last Thursday, acknowledged that his bill, prefiled on Dec. 18, goes too far as written.
“I did pull the bill back up and when I read it, I thought … ‘It’s very broad’ … and I would prefer in the amendment process that it be confined and more specific – much more specific,” said Pitts, a retired police officer who had been a House member since 2003.
Pitts, the immediate past House Ethics Committee chairman who resigned from office in a bid to become the next director of the state Conservation Bank, said his intent in writing the bill was to deal with candidate issues he encountered while the Ethics Committee chairman. He noted, for example, the committee didn’t have subpoena power to obtain financial records of House candidates accused of campaign misspending.
“We have to compare the bank records with the (candidate’s required campaign) report to make sure they match up,” he said.
Asked whether the bill, if it were narrowly tailored as he initially intended, could be used to intimidate newcomers seeking House or Senate seats, Pitts replied: “Even if they’re running the first time, now they get a packet from the very start that advises them on how to file (campaign reports), when to file, where to file, and the whole nine yards. And you’d be surprised at the number of people who still fail to do it and fail to do it right.”
Efforts Monday by The Nerve to reach the bill’s other sponsors – Reps. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means and Ethics committees; and Heather Crawford, R-Horry, who also serves on both committees – were unsuccessful. Lawmakers return today to Columbia to start the new legislative session.
Smith, a lawmaker for 18 years, was named last month to head the Ways and Means Committee, replacing Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, who was transferred by House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, to another committee. Lucas’ move came about a month after The Nerve revealed a number of potential conflicts of interest involving White, who had been the Ways and Means chairman for more than seven years. Smith was appointed the Ethics Committee chairman last month.
As currently written, Pitts’ bill would allow every standing committee of the House and Senate to issue subpoenas to “private entities or individuals as required by law, including, but not limited to, a financial institution” to “compel the attendance of witnesses and production of documents, books, papers, correspondence, memoranda, and other relevant records to its work, investigation, or study.”
Financial institutions under the legislation would include banks, banking and mortgage associations, land banks, credit unions, trust companies, and any other “banking or financial institution organized or operating under the laws of the United States or its states.”
State law already allows the House and Senate to go to circuit court to force compliance with chamber orders for state and local government agency representatives to testify before legislative committees or produce related records. Failure to obey a court order “may be punished as a contempt thereof,” under the law.
There are 13 standing committees in the House and 15 in the Senate, according to the Legislature’s website.
Another state law allows the lawmakers on oversight or special investigatory committees to seek “contempt of the General Assembly” charges – a felony that carries a maximum five-year prison sentence – if they believe a person appearing before those committees “wilfully gives false, materially misleading, or materially incomplete testimony under oath,” as The Nerve previously reported.
The S.C. and U.S. constitutions protect individuals from incriminating themselves in criminal cases. Under the state law that Pitts’ bill deals with, a person served with a subpoena from a legislative committee can ask the panel to issue an order to “protect the legal rights of any person or entity,” though it doesn’t specify self-incrimination protections.
In 1938, the S.C. Supreme Court sided with a man who was found in contempt by a joint legislative committee and ordered to be taken into custody after he refused to answer certain questions on the ground that doing so could incriminate him.
“The privilege of a witness to decline to give testimony which might have the effect of incriminating him is now guaranteed by the Constitution of this state, but this right was recognized in this jurisdiction as existing in full force and effect as a part of the common law long before it was incorporated as a constitutional provision,” the court wrote.
Pitts’ bill goes to the House Judiciary Committee.